America’s “pivot” to Asia is rapidly going nowhere, but diplomatic challenges in the most economically vibrant region of the world still cry out for attention. These include the brash assertiveness of a rising China, the emergence of an erratic, nuclear-armed young North Korean leader, and the embrace of neo-nationalism in an aging and insecure Japan. One nation stands out as a source of balance—South Korea, personified by its astute and pragmatic president, the first woman to hold the job.
The diplomatic courtship of Park Geun-hye drew worldwide attention in March when President Obama arranged a three-way meeting with her and Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, during a summit at The Hague. One could almost hear a chorus singing “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” in the background as the Western press gushed over the “breakthrough meeting.”
Most Koreans knew better. They were aware that Park Geun-hye normally would not be caught anywhere near the nationalistic Japanese leader, who had just three months before visited Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni war shrine. The stilted meeting required the American president to assume the Yente role at the behest of a worried State Department. In an official photo of the event, a barely smiling Park stares straight ahead, while a rather befuddled looking Abe watches as Obama does most of the talking.
In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye’s intelligent, strong-willed eldest daughter resists her father’s promotion of the wealthy but boorish butcher in favor of a more dashing suitor. Park Geun-hye also apparently has a mind of her own, despite pressure from the elders of Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon. The Washington gurus reportedly told Seoul’s diplomats that South Korea is “not a team player” in the alliance for not embracing Abe. They seemed to imply, like Tevye, that she should defer to “The Papa!” i.e., Uncle Sam.
But The Papa in Washington could do little when a more dashing suitor came courting in Seoul in July. There was nervousness in Washington as Chinese president Xi Jinping received the red carpet treatment from America’s South Korean ally. The sting is potentially even greater; Korean friends have said that any announced South Korean trip by Japan’s Abe would see the streets of Seoul flooded with so many protesters that the visit would have to be canceled (rather like President Eisenhower’s aborted visit to Tokyo in 1960 in the midst of contentious security treaty negotiations being handled by Prime Minister Abe’s own grandfather). Korean government officials, for the record, have asserted that bilateral relations with Tokyo are not as strained as claimed on the Seoul street and that, given the right circumstances, Abe would be welcomed.
Still, Washington should be concerned given President Park’s reported affection for Chinese culture and her noted fluency in Mandarin Chinese. And, as with any earnest suitor, Xi brought gifts guaranteed to dazzle. He had already approved earlier in the year the opening of a memorial hall in northeast China dedicated to the Korean independence fighter Ahn Jung-geun, who assassinated Japanese statesman Ito Hirobumi at Harbin train station in 1909. Xi has further plans for memorial sites in China dedicated to the Comfort Women, a key concern of the South Korean public, and to the Korean Provisional Government-in-exile, which was established in China during the period of Japanese colonial rule over Korea.
And soon after his Seoul visit, Xi Jinping, in a direct snub to his disrespectful and impulsive North Korean ally, allegedly allowed a group of North Korean refugees caught on China’s southern border, including a child, to be turned over to South Korean diplomats. They reportedly gained safe passage to Seoul rather than being sent back to the North Korean gulag. If true, this represents a clear triumph for Park Geun-hye’s quiet diplomacy on the refugee issue. Xi also holds the key to the ultimate prize for Seoul—Chinese acquiescence in a unified Korean peninsula one day under Seoul’s administration. While still a pipe dream, this possibility remains the holy grail of emerging Sino-South Korean friendly relations.
So will a bilateral Park-Abe summit ever take place? If Park Geun-hye were a descendant of independence fighter Ahn Jung-geun, she could be on a flight to Tokyo tomorrow, just as Richard Nixon, with his impeccable anti-Communist credentials, was the only American president who could go to China. But the uncomfortable fact is that President Park’s father, former president Park Chung-hee, was a graduate of the Imperial Japanese Army Academy and served as a lieutenant with Japan’s Kwantung Army in Manchuria—the same region where Prime Minister Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, headed industrial development and stood accused of exploiting Chinese slave labor.