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Q&A: Can Presidents Park and Obama disrupt North Korean tests?

President Park Geun-hye's visit to the White House today will likely focus on coordinating US and South Korean responses to Pyongyang's nuclear program, says Korea expert Scott Snyder.

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    South Korea's President Park Geun-hye and US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter attend a military honors arrival ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington, October 15.
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President Barack Obama is scheduled to host South Korean President Park Geun-hye at a White House summit on Friday.

The two allies will talk at a time when North Korea is shortly expected to test a new long-range missile, as China’s rise causes new tensions in the area, and relations between South Korea and Japan, the main US ally in the Pacific, have been frosty at best.

Ms. Park is South Korea’s first female president. She oversees a nation of 50 million that sports the world’s 13th largest economy; relies on 28,000 US troops; and shares a peninsula with North Korea, which is estimated to possess sufficient fissile material to produce 22 nuclear weapons.

To discuss the Obama-Park meeting the Monitor caught up with Scott Snyder, a Korea expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, just after he landed from a trip to Beijing.

Q: What tops the agenda when Mr. Obama receives Ms. Park in the Oval Office?  

Clearly the main issue anytime the presidents of the US and South Korea get together is North Korea. And especially now, in light of the North’s continued course of nuclear weapons development. I believe the main mission of the two presidents is to disrupt the pattern that we have seen over the past decade where North Korea conducts long-range rocket tests and nuclear tests about every three years. We know that North Korea is preparing for those kinds of tests even if they were deferred as a result of the Oct. 10 [70th anniversary of the Worker’s Party] parade. In order for security needs to be met on both sides, the North needs to change direction and give up its nuclear weapons focus.

Q: Is this an important summit?

Yes, especially if you believe in the George Schultz gardening theory of international relations, where diplomacy is like gardening. You must tend the garden and regularly weed it in order to be successful.

The US-South Korean relationship is very successful right now. There aren’t many burning bilateral issues. Both sides want to deepen and broaden relations, including into so-called frontier areas like cybersecurity and space cooperation.

It is significant that Park and Obama both recently met Chinese leader Xi [Jinping] and this is a good opportunity to compare notes. To coordinate between the US and South Korea on China is very important. There has been more tension building up in the US-China relationship. That was exposed in the course of the [Sept. 28 Washington] summit between Xi and Obama. It will be important for Park to hear Obama’s impressions of that summit.

Q: Does this relate to North Korea?

The Park administration has been trying to bring the US and China together as part of a strategy to push forward on North Korea. One cogent argument for that approach and for what Park can bring to Washington is that the US-China relationship has become so complex and bogged down that it is hard to focus on an issue like North Korea. South Korea has a vested interest in making the issue a priority. The big question is whether the Chinese want to take another step.

Q: Park was the only US ally to attend Xi Jinping’s August military parade in Beijing. Does Park now have special purchase with China?

Xi and Park now have a good personal relationship but it remains to be seen whether it will be possible for symbolism associated with that relationship to be translated into substance.

Park’s main objective in talking with President Xi was to gain support for unification [between North and South Korea]. The importance of China as an actor with whom to coordinate is underscored by the recent 70th anniversary parade [of the ruling Worker’s Party] with the attendance of [Chinese] Politburo member Liu Yunshan. China's ultimate aim is to make progress on North Korean denuclearization and that requires all three regional leaders.

Q: Obama is expected to address relations between allies Japan and South Korea that got so bad the two weren’t speaking.

The Japan-Korea relationship is important to the United States. The US has an interest in promoting a positive, enabling environment for a normal Japan and South Korea relationship. A number of steps have occurred since the summer; there’s been a meeting between China, South Korea, and Japan with the expectation that a Japan-South Korea summit would also occur that would help restore normal relations. Unfortunately normal relations between the two contain many challenges; there continue to be differences in the way they look at the past.

Q: Last winter Park excoriated Japan for suggesting that Korean comfort women in World War II were willing volunteers. But hasn’t there been progress on this issue?

The South Koreans have gotten back to the starting line by dropping the comfort women issue as a precondition for a normal relationship with Japan. But at senior levels there is an expectation that comfort women will … be discussed and progress made. They hope that Japan can take a step forward in addressing directly the human suffering that the comfort women experienced during the war.

Q: The Park-Obama meeting was first set for the spring but is only happening Oct. 16. Park is now in a stronger position, isn’t she?

Several factors make this a better environment. Her popularity has jumped from the 30s to the mid 50s and she is in a better position to act. She is in a better position to deliver credibly as a counterpart to President Obama, whereas before there were concerns about her relative weakness. Park has gone from having not much prospect before to now achieving some of her regional objectives. 

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