Obama, South Korea’s Park are likely to temper any tensions

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South Korean President Park Geun-hye and President Obama no doubt will look to project a unified front when the two leaders meet Tuesday at the White House to discuss how best to address the North Korean nuclear threat.

But beneath that show of unity, tensions lurk. Among them are American resistance to Seoul’s growing desire to produce and refine nuclear materials and South Korea’s fear that the U.S. is taking a soft posture toward Japan, which the Asian region sees as increasingly nationalistic.


SEE ALSO: China cuts off North Korean bank, adding to pressure on Pyongyang


The Obama administration has been less than eager to discuss such topics ahead of Ms. Park’s arrival at the White House, focusing instead on her visit’s significance in marking the 60-year anniversary celebrations for the military alliance between the U.S. and the Republic of South Korea.

“In our view, the U.S.-ROK alliance is stronger than it’s ever been before,” Daniel Russell, Mr. Obama’s director for Asian affairs, said Monday night.

He described the two countries’ alliance as a “global partnership” that includes cooperation on a range of issues, including foreign policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan and efforts to combat climate change.

Total alignment between the two nations, however, is far from complete, according to some foreign policy insiders, who point to Seoul’s disappointment over what many in South Korea see as a restrictive nuclear pact with Washington.

Under a 1972 accord, the U.S. provides nuclear fuel and technology to South Korea on the condition that Seoul will not pursue enrichment — a necessary step for the production of nuclear weapons.

The U.S. maintains a more open version of such accords with allies in Europe and elsewhere in Asia, allowing nations to reprocess spent nuclear fuel on the condition that the activity will be open to monitoring by the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency.

The Obama administration signed such an accord with India in 2010, but has avoided doing so with Seoul, apparently because of concerns that allowing uranium enrichment in South Korea would only add fuel to an increasingly heated regional arms race. As a result, the two sides agreed last month to extend the existing accord for another two years.

But Washington’s posture has left some in South Korea scratching their heads. “Japan was allowed to reprocess spent fuel 25 years ago. Why not Korea?” asked B.J. Kim, a professor of international relations at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

“An increasing portion of the Korean public is taking this as an issue of national pride and trust with Korea’s closest ally,” he said, arguing that from the South Korean perspective, the issue has more to do with nuclear waste logistics than with geopolitics.

“Without being allowed to reprocess spent fuel, we have been storing the spent fuel rods at nuclear power plants for the past four decades,” Mr. Kim said. “We are not the United States. So, as one of the most densely populated major economies of the world, we simply do not have uninhabited land where we can bury them.”

It would be in Ms. Park’s best interest, he said, to “articulate Korea’s dilemma in very easy-to-understand terms, put it in official record and publicize it with the D.C. audience.”

Others said the issue is unlikely to rear its head at the White House. “My understanding is that both sides feel like by providing a two-year extension [to the existing nuclear accord], they’re trying to take it off the agenda for this meeting,” said Scott A. Snyder, who heads the program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “They’re essentially pushing the can down the road.”

Mr. Russell made no mention of the issue during a call with reporters Monday night. Instead, he said, Mr. Obama and Ms. Park are likely to issue “a joint declaration commemorating the 60-year anniversary of the U.S.-ROK alliance.”

As part of her visit and the anniversary celebration, Mr. Russell said, Ms. Park planned visits to Arlington National Cemetery and the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and she will host a dinner for U.S. veterans and others who have contributed to the alliance. She also plans to address both houses of Congress.

North Korea on front burner

Headlines out of Tuesday’s meeting are likely to focus on South Korea’s growing impatience with the wave of antagonistic rhetoric and nuclear threats from North Korea’s 28-year-old leader, Kim Jong-un.

Mr. Russell said Mr. Obama intends to seize the opportunity of Ms. Park’s visit to “reaffirm the strong commitment of the United States to the defense of the Republic of Korea.”

Ms. Park is likely to praise the administration’s effort to bring together regional powers — particularly China — in an effort to defuse the tension emanating from Pyongyang.

But there are questions about whether the South Korean president sees eye to eye with Mr. Obama on North Korea.

Before her victory as the democracy’s first female president in December, there was concern in some circles in Washington over the extent to which Ms. Park might subvert collective international resistance to North Korea by seeking a less restrictive posture toward Pyongyang.

During her presidential campaign, she suggested an eagerness to reverse a hard-knuckle approach embraced by her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who moved to halt aid to the North amid frustration over Pyongyang’s belligerence in recent years.

Ms. Park’s message resonated among a portion of South Korean voters holding out hope for a North-South reunification.

She has faced other challenges on the domestic front, including a struggle to overcome public perceptions of her as the daughter of former South Korean President Park Chung-hee, who was elected to rule from 1963 to 1979 after initially seizing power in a military coup.

The elder Park is credited by many with laying the economic foundation upon which South Korea has risen steadily during recent decades. But some in the nation regarded him as a dictator.

How such factors play into the evolving relationship between Seoul and Washington remains to be seen.

Friction over Japan

The economic discussion Tuesday is likely to center around whether and when South Korea may join the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership, an 11-nation free-trade pact aimed at deepening the economic link between U.S. allies in the Western Hemisphere and Asia.

Japan recently made a public commitment to join the pact — a move that would dramatically expand the partnership’s overall global influence. But having Japan on board could lessen South Korea’s desire to join.

“Six months ago, the U.S. was eager to see South Korea join, in order to pressure Japan into joining,” Mr. Snyder said. “But now that Japan is joining, it’s more a question of whether South Korea might feel left out.”

Mr. Russell said that the “decision about whether or not the Republic of Korea wants to join the [Trans-Pacific Partnership] rests with them.”

“They would have to ask and thus far they haven’t,” he said, adding that a separate “bilateral” trade agreement between Washington and Seoul has been a “success.”

But U.S. closeness to Japan may present hurdles for the administration in its relationship with Seoul. Ms. Park is pushing a regional cooperation initiative that includes an effort to get nations, including Japan, to tone down their recently amplified nationalist rhetoric.

“One of the ideas behind that initiative,” Mr. Snyder said, “is that Japan needs to step up and to take a correct view of history.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has woven a more nationalistic view of history into his domestic political platform in recent months. Last month, several of his Cabinet ministers paid homage to the controversial Yasakuni Shrine honoring Japan’s war dead.

The visits caused outrage in Seoul as some of those honored at the shrine are World War II leaders convicted of committing atrocities against Koreans.

The Obama administration has gently kept its rhetorical distance from the situation. Mr. Russell told reporters Monday that the White House encourages Japan and South Korea to conduct themselves in a fashion “that promotes healing” rather than inflames tensions.

How Mr. Obama deals with the issue, should it come up Tuesday, may trigger questions in Seoul about which alliance is ultimately more important to Washington — South Korea or Japan?

“That’s exactly the question that the U.S. doesn’t want to answer,” Mr. Snyder said.

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About the Author
Guy Taylor

Guy Taylor

Guy Taylor is the National Security Team Leader at The Washington Times, overseeing the paper’s State Department, Pentagon and intelligence community coverage. He’s also a frequent guest on The McLaughlin Group and C-SPAN.

His series on political, economic and security developments in Mexico won a 2012 Virginia Press Association award.

Prior to rejoining The Times in 2011, his work was ...

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