WASHINGTON (AP) — South Korean President Park Geun-hye is walking a fine line as she looks to strengthen her nation’s alliance with the United States against nuclear-armed North Korea while deepening ties with China, a strategic rival of the U.S. and the North’s sole ally.
Park will meet Friday at the White House with President Barack Obama after causing consternation in Washington last month by attending a military parade in Beijing that was shunned by most leaders of major democracies. Park stood between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the autocratic leader of Kazakhstan as Chinese tanks and mobile missiles that are rattling the nerves of some of China’s Asian nations trundled past.
That doesn’t necessarily reflect strains in a U.S.-South Korean relationship that has remained strong since Park was elected in 2013. The allies have hewed to the same tough stance on North Korea, whose young leader Kim Jong Un last weekend put on his own display of military hardware in Pyongyang and declared his nation ready to stand up to any U.S. threat.
But Park has invested a lot of diplomatic capital in closer relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping. South Korea counts China as its main trading partner and wants to pull Beijing away from its traditional close embrace of North Korea. There was a sign that is working at the Sept. 3 parade in Beijing. Kim was absent, whereas Park stood close to Xi.
Victor Cha, Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Obama administration — which also puts a high premium on winning China’s cooperation — understands what Park is trying to do. China, however, likely views the South Korean outreach differently: as an opportunity to pull Seoul away from the U.S. alliance network in Northeast Asia.
Cha said the “true test” of Park’s strategy will be when the next North Korean provocation comes, and Beijing comes under pressure to get tougher on Pyongyang. The old allies put on a show of fraternal ties last weekend, when the fifth-ranking Chinese communist official was Kim’s most prominent foreign guest for the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s ruling party.
North Korea, estimated to have enough fissile material for 10 to 16 nuclear weapons, recently declared it has upgraded and restarted all of its atomic fuel plants, and that it would conduct more rocket launches any time it sees fit. The Oct. 10 party anniversary, however, passed without a long-range rocket launch or nuclear test.
The Obama administration has faced criticism from hawks and doves alike for its lack of high-level attention on North Korea, which is assumed to be coming closer to developing a nuclear-tipped missile that could reach the U.S. mainland. The administration has been preoccupied with forging a nuclear deal with Iran and security crises across the Middle East.
But North Korea will top the agenda when Park meets Obama. Her four-day Washington visit was rescheduled from June when an outbreak of the MERS virus in South Korea prompted her to postpone.
In the interim, the two Koreas threatened each other with war after two South Korean soldiers were wounded by land mines Seoul says were planted by the North. The tensions have since eased. Reunions of Korean families divided by the Korean War six decades ago are due to take place Oct. 20, but it remains unclear if the two sides will resume high-level talks.
Park will visit the Pentagon and address a Washington think tank Thursday.
The U.S. and South Korea are expected to issue a joint statement on North Korea, warning it against provocations while leaving the door open to negotiations. They will also sign a space cooperation agreement.
But the allies will be tiptoeing around a key decision about how to defend against the North’s weapons of mass destruction.
The U.S., which retains 28,500 troops in South Korea, wants to deploy a ballistic missile defense system there that China strongly opposes because it believes it could be directed against it and not just North Korea. The U.S. says the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, battery would be purely intended to destroy North Korean missiles targeting the South.
The U.S. and South Korea had preliminary discussions in the spring about THAAD, but U.S. and South Korean officials say it won’t be on the summit agenda this week as such a deployment hasn’t been formally proposed by Washington.
Beijing has been leaning on Seoul, warning that the missile defense system could hurt bilateral relations.
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