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South Korean President Park's US visit carries hope

By Woo Jin-hoon (China Daily)

08:49, May 06, 2013

Republic of Korea President Park Geun-hye will pay an official visit to the United States from May 6, her first overseas trip since taking office in February. In-depth discussions on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and plans for peaceful cooperation in Northeast Asia will be high on the agenda of her meeting with US President Barack Obama in Washington. She is also scheduled to meet with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York, where the DPRK issue is likely to be discussed again.

Park considered China as the destination for her first overseas trip as ROK president given the importance of bilateral economic and trade ties, and China's efforts to promote permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. But her plans changed after the UN imposed sanctions on the DPRK for conducting a third nuclear test in February and declaring the Korean Armistice Agreement invalid.

Pyongyang's actions prompted Seoul to strengthen its alliance with Washington and Park to visit the US in the hope of finding a way to resolve the crisis on the Peninsula and work out cooperative plans for stability in Northeast Asia. This year marks the 60th anniversary of US-ROK military alliance, and Seoul hopes to use it to put more pressure on Pyongyang.

After being sworn in as president, Park proposed a "Korean Peninsula trust process", a set of policies toward the DPRK nuclear issue which calls for Seoul-Pyongyang trust building through dialogue and deeper cooperation and communications.

A survey conducted by the ROK authorities soon after Park assumed office showed that people wanted her to make economic revival her top priority, with just 1 percent giving precedence to improving relations with the DPRK. But after the DPRK conducted its third nuclear test, a majority of the people in the ROK said improving Seoul-Pyongyang relations should be Park's top priority.

After the DPRK's provocative actions, Park vowed to take immediate action if Pyongyang escalated tensions further even though she remained committed to peaceful resolution to the crisis, and the ROK proposed to hold dialogue with the DPRK to prevent the closure of their only joint venture, the Kaesong industrial complex.

After US Secretary of State John Kerry's visits to China, the ROK and Japan, and the visit of China's special representative for Korean Peninsula affairs Wu Dawei to the US, the diplomatic efforts of China, the US and the ROK have centered on the DPRK nuclear issue.

Several Chinese experts say the DPRK's nuclear tests and provocative actions have contributed to the "pivot to Asia" policy of the US, which is aimed at containing China. Kerry made it clear during his overseas visits that Washington's policy toward Pyongyang has shifted from strategic patience to strategic impatience. He said that any peaceful negotiation on the Peninsula will be based on the DPRK's denuclearization.

Faced with the threat of a missile attack from the DPRK, the US has moved part of its missile defense system to the Western Pacific, which according to China has added to the distrust in China-US strategic ties. So the DPRK's provocations are not only a threat to the ROK's security, but also an added strategic burden on China.

Park has said the DPRK should stop exploiting inter-Korean emotions to intensify the crisis on the Peninsula. And before embarking on her first overseas trip as ROK president, Park has proposed dialogue to resolve the nuclear issue.

The DPRK's nuclear threats have become more serious. But they can also be seen as its desperation to engage with international community. It is thus likely that apart from discussing mutual efforts to deal with the DPRK issue, the US and the ROK will also explore the possibility of strategic dialogue among Beijing, Washington and Seoul to defuse tensions on the Peninsula. They could also discuss the possibility of holding four-way talks if Pyongyang is willing to join them, which could lead to the resumption of the Six-Party Talks.

Later, Park is scheduled to visit China, and her visit will help China, the US and the ROK to intensify their cooperation to resolve the Peninsula crisis. In fact, if Beijing, Washington and Seoul make concerted efforts in line with their policies toward Pyongyang, then it would be difficult for the latter to take more provocative actions.

President Xi Jinping has supported Park's "Korean Peninsula trust process". And although China backed the UN sanctions on the DPRK, it has always emphasized that the Peninsula issue should be resolved through dialogue and consultations. Of course, China's policy of promoting peace and stability on the Peninsula is subject to the condition that the DPRK stop taking provocative actions and return to the negotiating table.

Park's diplomacy is based on the ROK people's aspiration to see a peaceful Peninsula, which will contribute to the shift in the policies of the US, China and the rest of the international community toward the DPRK. Let us hope that Park's visit to the US reduces tensions on the Korean Peninsula and helps build a peaceful cooperative network in Northeast Asia.

The author is a guest professor at the School of Finance, Renmin University of China.

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