[Analysis] Inter-Korean relations hinge on Pres. Park’s visit to the US

Posted on : 2015-10-14 16:56 KST Modified on : 2015-10-14 16:56 KST
During summit with Pres. Obama, Park will need to send message of engagement or pressure to North Korea
 Gyeonggi Province as she departs for her visit to the US
Gyeonggi Province as she departs for her visit to the US

On the afternoon of Oct. 13, President Park Geun-hye departed South Korea for a summit with US President Barack Obama. The summit will take place in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 16.

At the meeting, the two leaders are expected to adopt a joint fact sheet on the current status of bilateral relations, which contains a number of measures for cooperation. Reportedly, they are also very likely to issue a separate joint statement regarding the issues of North Korea and its nuclear program.

The summit - Park and Obama’s fourth - is particularly important in the sense that the two leaders will offer a response to the situation on the Korean Peninsula, which has undergone some positive developments since North and South Korea reached an agreement on Aug. 25.

The key here is how Park and Obama will interpret the message that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made on the 70th anniversary of the foundation of its ruling Workers’ Party and what message they will offer in response. The future of the Korean Peninsula largely depends on whether they respond by engaging North Korea or by threatening it and putting more pressure on it.

Given the major items on the itinerary of Park’s visit to the US that the Blue House has announced so far, there seems to be little chance of engagement.

The first items on Park‘s US agenda - laying a wreath at the Korean War Veterans Memorial on Oct. 14 and visiting the Pentagon and speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Oct. 15 - are designed to send a message about strengthening the alliance between South Korea and the US.

While Park is no doubt trying to assuage nervousness in Washington that South Korea is shifting toward China, this increases the likelihood that she will also send a hard-line message to North Korea.

In fact, a source at the Blue House explained that reaffirming cooperation on North Korea was the second of five objectives for Park’s visit to the US. “Given the continuing possibility of North Korea carrying out a strategic provocation, the two leaders are planning to reaffirm their unwavering cooperation on North Korea and to deliberate about ways to respond to North Korea’s strategic provocations and to resume meaningful talks about denuclearization,” the source said.

Other factors decreasing the likelihood of engagement are that North Korea and its nuclear program are not a major priority for the Obama administration and that Obama does not have positive feelings for North Korea.

In a joint press conference after his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sep. 25, Obama emphasized the “complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner” and said that the US would “not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapon state.”

While Xi called for the implementation of the Sep. 19 Joint Statement, Obama did not mention the six-party talks or the Sep. 19 Joint Statement.

Experts are urging the leaders of the two countries to take advantage of this rare opportunity.

“North Korea has been showing a change of attitude recently. The North did not launch a long-range rocket, and Kim Jong-un did not mention nuclear weapons in his speech during the military review on Oct. 10. Rather than putting pressure on North Korea and reaffirming cooperation, I hope that [Park and Obama] will send a carefully worded message that would bring North Korea to the table for talks and that would strengthen trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the US, and China,” said Moon Chung-in, a professor at Yonsei University.

“If Park can convince Obama to engage in talks with North Korea, inter-Korean relations will begin to pick up speed and the trust-building process on the Korean peninsula will be supported, increasing the likelihood of the six-party talks resuming,” Moon said.

“If President Park makes hardline remarks about North Korea in the US, there are major concerns that this could negatively affect the reunions of families divided by the Korean War taking place next week. She needs to be careful about how she phrases her message,” said Kim Yeon-cheol, a professor at Inje University.

By Lee Je-hun and Choi Hye-jung, staff reporters

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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