By Victor Cha
On May 7, President Park Geun-hye of the Republic of Korea made her first official visit to the United States and had a summit meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House. It is the first meeting between them since they were inaugurated in January and February of this year. The two leaders signed a joint declaration on the U.S.-ROK alliance in celebration of the 60 years of their alliance.
Park and Obama reaffirmed their countries’ shared values of liberty, democracy, and the market economy and highlighted the significant progress made in realizing the 2009 Joint Vision for the Alliance. The United States reiterated its firm commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea, including extended deterrence and the full range of U.S. military capabilities. The presidents noted the positive results of the one-year-old Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and recognized its potential to serve as an engine for future economic growth in both countries.
What is the overall assessment of the summit?
Quite successful. First summits are about messaging and personal chemistry. The messages on North Korean deterrence and the strength of the alliance in its 60th year were clearly sent. President Park’s speech at the Joint Session was delivered in fluent English and met with a very warm reception from House and Senate members. She received several standing ovations during his speech and was asked to autograph programs as she left the chamber. The reception was equally warm among members in Boehner’s private chambers after the speech. At the White House, the two leaders were able to have some one-on-one time in addition to the regularly scheduled meetings and the working lunch. All of these atmospherics are important in setting the tone in the relationship.
Did they deal with the North Korean problem effectively?
The main message on this issue was that Washington and Seoul are “airtight” on North Korea policy. Park used very strong words about her willingness to retaliate at any North Korean provocation, and President Obama stated clearly that the U.S. would not give concessions to climb down from any crises created by North Korea. Obama also said that he supported Park’s “trustpolitik” which implied that should North Korean behavior moderate in the coming months, then the U.S. would support any humanitarian assistance that Park might want to provide to the people of North Korea. It was interesting that in all three of her public speeches (Smithsonian dinner, Joint Session of Congress, and Chamber lunch), Park mentioned unification several times as part of the vision of a future East Asian community at peace. The implication is that if North Korea can’t be denuclearized, then all in the region must prepare for a different path that might entail unification.
What did the leaders discuss regarding China?
The most interesting event regarding China during the summit was the news that the Bank of China closed accounts of a North Korean bank, which showed some determination by Beijing to comply with UN sanctions. The most interesting statement during the summit on China was the interview that President Park gave to the Washington Post. In this, she used the usual strong language about pressing China to use its material influence to denuclearize North Korea, but she added that if North Korea is unwilling, then President Park said she will ask China to choose a different path.
Park would like to “engage in candid discussions with [President Xi Jinping] about whether, if North Korea decides not to become a responsible member of the international community, whether this current path that it is taking is sustainable.” These are fairly forward-leaning public comments by an ROK president, and coupled with her mention of unification, signals the broader context in which she would like to talk with Beijing about the peninsula. Following her visit to Washington, President Park will next visit China at some point soon.
Dr. Victor Cha is a senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @vcgiants. To learn more, read Dr. Cha’s critical questions on the recent summit. He is also the author of a recently published book titled The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future.
Dr. Victor Cha is senior adviser and Korea Chair at CSIS. He is also a professor of government and director for Asian studies at Georgetown University.