South Korean President Park Geun-hye made her first official visit to Washington on 5 May 2013. Park’s visit came as the US and South Korea observed the 60th anniversary of their mutual defense treaty, which was signed just two months after the end of the Korean War in 1953.
The trip was intended to serve a twin purpose: enhance economic ties and deepen security relationship between the two allies. During her six-day trip, Park was accompanied by the largest-ever economic delegation to the US. Among the five business leaders were included the chairman of the Samsung Electronics conglomerate and the chiefs of the country’s five largest business organizations.
As was expected, the economic focus of the trip was overshadowed by security concerns, stemming from the recent provocations by North Korea and the threats to attack both South Korea and the US. Park and President Obama affirmed that North Korea will be incapable of achieving its goals if it maintains its nuclear programs. Both leaders resolved to remain firm on North Korea unless it opens the door towards reform itself. Pyongyang has always maintained its preference of talking with Washington rather than dealing directly with Seoul, but Washington has clearly indicated that Pyongyang must first improve ties with its southern neighbour.
During a joint press conference on 7 May, both leaders agreed that the North Korean leader and his government must stop provocations and pursue a peaceful path if the North is ever to emerge from its stark position of isolation among the world’s nations. Obama said that “if Pyongyang thought its recent threats would drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States or somehow garner the North international respect, today is further evidence that North Korea has failed again”.
Reassuring Park of continuing US commitment, Obama said both countries are committed towards maintaining and strengthening their 60-year-old alliance and military/economic engagements. He further pledged to defend the US and its allies “with the full range of capabilities available, including the deterrence provided by conventional and nuclear forces”. Indeed, diplomatic engagement would be to Pyongyang’s interest if it agrees to take meaningful steps to abide by its commitments and obligations, particularly the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Here, Pyongyang needs to learn some lessons from Myanmar, which opted for economic reforms and a democratic transition to peace. Consequently, it is now receiving aid and investments from major countries of the world, including the US and South Korea.
Indeed, like the Japan-US alliance, the South Korea-US alliance has been faithfully carrying out its role as a bulwark of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in northeast Asia. This alliance should continue to serve as a linchpin for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in Asia. Sending a clear message to Pyongyang, Park said “North Korea will not be able to survive if it only clings to developing its nuclear weapons at the expense of its people’s happiness”. Park said South Korea and the US will work to ‘induce’ North Korea to ‘make the right choice’ including through Seoul’s trust-building policy.
The Six-Party Talks, the only forum for negotiations, remains suspended but must not be abandoned as there are no further alternatives for peace. The US, South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and other countries have been urging Pyongyang to “faithfully abide by its international obligations under September 19th joint statements and the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions”. Should North Korea choose the path to becoming a responsible member of the community of nations, the international community would willingly join South Korea in providing the required assistance to get Pyongyang out of its difficult economic situation.
So, did Obama and Park succeed in their abilities to craft a joint strategy for dealing with North Korea? On the surface, apart from reiterating their mutual commitment to maintain peace and stability in northeast Asia, what was significant was their resolve to develop a forward-looking joint vision for the alliance, building upon the Joint Vision Statement crafted by Obama and former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak during Lee’s visit to Washington in June 2009.
What are the options on the table for the US and South Korea on the issue of North Korea? If North Korea again makes another attempt to probe the limits of its power and test how other international actors respond, the real escalation of tensions would have begun. Once that happens, things would go out of control. North Korea has captured global attention with its provocative actions.
But the latest provocation has been the sentencing of US citizen and tour-leader Kenneth Bae to 15 years of hard labour. Apart from issuing threats, what will North Korean leader Kim Jong-un do next and how will the US and its allies respond? North Korea has always remained a major intelligence challenge as it has mastered the art of hiding important military facilities. It is, therefore, difficult to predict Pyongyang’s next move and that leaves the major stakeholders scratching their heads for plausible alternative solutions.
This article first appeared at IPCS and is reprinted with permission.