North Korea has toned down its threats since celebrating founding dictator Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15, and the Boston bombing has relegated North Korea to the inside pages. But the challenges North Korea poses for both Washington and Seoul remain as serious as ever.
That is why President Obama’s meeting today with South Korean President Park Geun-hye is especially important. This will be the newly inaugurated Ms. Park’s first summit with Mr. Obama. How closely they agree on policy toward Pyongyang and whether they establish a good working relationship will be key – even more so than China’s long hoped-for role – to dealing with an increasingly dangerous new North Korean leadership.
South Korea has become a major player in regional and even global affairs. With only 50 million people, it is the world’s sixth-largest exporter, and no country is more directly affected by North Korea’s actions.
Obama had a terrific relationship with Park’s predecessor, President Lee Myung-bak. The two men saw eye to eye on North Korea as well as on most other issues, and South Korea came to be seen by many Americans as an even better East Asian partner than Japan. Obama instantly hit it off with the exuberant Lee, making it possible for them to coordinate closely during several crises, including North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests and its two sneak attacks on the South in 2010 that killed 50 people.
Park represents the same conservative party as Lee but comes from a different faction and has brought in many new advisers. She has offered North Korea negotiations on confidence-building measures and said she would provide food aid, but, unlike Lee, without conditioning these on North Korea’s willingness to give up its nuclear weapons program.
So far, the North has spurned her initiatives, most recently moving to shut down the joint Kaesong industrial park that is the last remaining symbol of North-South cooperation. But Park has remained calm in the face of provocation, ready to revive cooperation if North Korea will give her the opportunity.
Park is also a different personality than Lee. Northeast Asia’s first female leader in modern times, she is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, Korea’s strongman during the 1960s and 1970s who oversaw the country’s dramatic economic development.
Her mother was assassinated by a North Korean agent in 1974, after which she acted as the nation’s first lady, only to have her father killed by his own intelligence chief amid popular demands for democratization in 1979. These experiences have made Park Geun-hye a reserved and formal person, but many feel she is also as firm and determined as her father.
Obama will have many issues to discuss with Park, but none nearly as important as North Korea. Having conducted its third nuclear test in February, North Korea’s rhetoric, always hair-raising, has been off the charts, including threats to conduct a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the United States.
North Korea still doesn't have the capability to do that, but it is on a trajectory eventually to have a small nuclear arsenal that it wants to use to to bully South Korea and the US. Obama will thus reassure Park that the US nuclear umbrella remains fully credible, especially as a vocal minority of South Korean leaders is calling for South Korea to respond to the North by building its own nuclear weapons.
In the meantime, American officials worry about North Korean provocations that could trigger a tough South Korean response, potentially spinning out of control. That is why it is essential that Obama and Park also discuss military measures to increase deterrence on the Korean Peninsula.
Obama and Park both understand that the preferred path out of this impasse lies through diplomacy. But neither wants to reward Pyongyang for its belligerence, much less accept it as a nuclear weapons state, as it is demanding.
The Chinese-sponsored six-party talks to end the nuclear program have been moribund for four years. It is time for a new approach, and the answer may lie in letting Seoul take the lead in dealing with Pyongyang.
President Park’s “trustpolitik” vision is for Seoul to build mutual trust and confidence with the North, which she hopes will reduce inter-Korean tensions and might eventually prompt Pyongyang’s leadership to consider abandoning its nuclear weapons program.
As a Korean nation-state, South Korea, unlike the US, can negotiate with the North on non-nuclear matters without the implication of accepting the North’s claims to nuclear weapons status. The odds of success don’t appear great, but Park’s approach is worth trying and is certainly the best current opportunity to develop a useful diplomatic process with North Korea.
Park also intends to brief Obama on her concept for a new Northeast Asia diplomatic forum that broadens her approach to the North by drawing in China and Japan as well as the US in regional exchanges. Unlike the six-party talks, the focus of Park’s forum would not be on North Korea’s nuclear program but on less controversial regional issues, such as climate change.
It remains to be seen whether Washington will be comfortable with North Korea’s inclusion in such a forum as long as it is not prepared to give up nuclear weapons.
Americans might not be entirely at ease with letting their South Korean ally take the lead with North Korea. For that reason, President Park’s visit to Washington this week is vital to establishing the personal chemistry and policy consensus needed to get not just them but all of us through what could be the most harrowing times on the Korean Peninsula since the establishment of the US-South Korean alliance 60 years ago.