Standing apart, South Korea's Park heads to China's WWII extravaganza

Few Western leaders will attend a major 70th war anniversary parade in Beijing, seen as blatantly anti-Japanese. But Park's visit affirms China's role in East Asia.

Lintao Zhang/AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping (r.) shakes hands with South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. World leaders are in Beijing to attend events related to China's commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

South Korea's President Park Geun-hye today met China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing ahead of a large and somewhat divisive World War II "victory" celebration seen as asserting China's legitimacy and power.

President Park opened the meeting in the Great Hall of the People by thanking President Xi for exercising his influence over North Korea. Park alluded to China's efforts at persuading North Korea not to follow through on threats to open fire across the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas in a testy standoff in late August, according to Park's spokesman. 

Nothing better dramatizes China's regional military and commercial weight than Park's decision to fly to Beijing, to see Xi as soon as she got there, and then to stay and witness a much-touted Chinese parade on Thursday of 12,000 soldiers in Tiananmen Square and 200 jet fighters soaring overhead. 

Park's presence was particularly significant considering that US President Barack Obama and other leaders of the West and Japan refused to attend an event laden with anti-Japanese overtones, and which will present a much larger role for Mao's communists in defeating Japan 70 years ago than historians agree on.

Not many world leaders at parade

Other than Park, only UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Russian President Vladimir Putin are top-level leaders visitors to the Beijing parade, though some 40 other world dignitaries are attending.

"This visit to Beijing is to confirm our cooperative relationship," says Baek Seung-joo, South Korea's vice minister of defense. "It is not to bring pressure,” or to exacerbate tensions in the region, including with North Korea or Japan.

Nonetheless, many East Asian analysts see Park paying homage to China at a time when China and Japan are vying for regional preeminence and when the two leaders of Asia are still battling over the history of World War II. 

Japanese forces conquered much of China in the 1930s, and anti-Japanese sentiment is kept alive in China; South Korea and China are often paired as nations and societies that suffered under Japanese occupation.

Park’s visit "underscores the importance of China over Japan in terms of priorities, in terms of economic interdependence and historical precedent," says Tom Coyner, a longtime business consultant in both Korea and Japan, who is based in Seoul.

The South Korea-China summit comes barely a week after high-level negotiators from the North and South came to terms in marathon talks in the truce village of Panmunjom. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had declared a "semi-state of war" and ordered his troops to be "battle ready" if the South did not shut down loudspeaker broadcasts of music, news, and commentary poking fun at the North Korea leader.

Yet rather than open fire in 48 hours if the South did not comply, North Korea asked for talks with the South. Some analysts feel China, the source of all North Korea’s oil and half its food, was a hidden hand, bringing Mr. Kim to the table.  After three days of dialogue, Pyongyang expressed "regret" for the landmine explosion in the DMZ that severely wounded two South Korean Army sergeants.

Xi and Park also discussed ideas for jump-starting the so-called “six-party talks” on North Korea's nuclear program that have languished for many years and that include China, the US, Russia, Japan, and the two Koreas.

North's nuclear weapons a source of pride

The North is believed to have fabricated at least a dozen nuclear warheads and has conducted three nuclear tests. Its program is considered to be at the heart of Pyongyang’s national pride and its struggle to survive. 

China has pressured North Korea not to stage a fourth nuclear test even as North Korea's relations with China have soured. Kim has not visited Beijing since taking power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, nearly four years ago. A long-time senior bureaucrat from the North, Choe Ryong-hae, former defense minister and current secretary of the ruling Workers' Party, will represent the North at the parade.

Park Geun-hye's visit also underscores the power of a mutual anti-Japan narrative between Seoul and Beijing that challenges the US-South Korean alliance. That alliance dates to the Korean War, when the two fought first the North Koreans and then Chinese "volunteers" who poured south, rescuing the North Korean regime.

US officials said they respect Park's decision to go to Beijing, even as they deplore the anti-Japan overtones of the occasion.  Anti-Japanese bitterness has welled up in Korea in disputes over compensation for "comfort women," mostly Korean, who served Japanese soldiers. There are also emotional differences over school textbook accounts of Japanese rule, and worries in Seoul that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's veer to a more hawkish nationalism will undermine Japan's postwar "peace Constitution" banning Japanese forces from going overseas.

Another consideration for Park is China's role as Korea's leading trading partner and a target for Korean industrial development.  After her summit with Xi, she met Prime Minister Li Keqiang to talk about economic issues.

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