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Park to unveil vision for peace, cooperation in Northeast Asia

Reaction of China to U.S. Asian ‘pivot’ could pose challenges for Seoul

President Park Geun-hye will outline her vision for peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia for the first time during her visit to the U.S. this week.

The new initiative envisions a long-term trust-building process among regional countries including North Korea, which starts from nonpolitical concerns and progresses to security cooperation.

During her summit with President Barack Obama, Park is expected to request Washington’s support for the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative as well as her “trustpolitik” approach, which seeks to reengage Pyongyang while deterring its security threat.

“Northeast Asian nations and the U.S. can first build trust in nonpolitical areas such as climate change, antiterrorism and nuclear safety, and with that as a base they can build greater multilateral confidence,” the president said in a meeting with managing editors of Korean news media at Cheong Wa Dae on April 24.
Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hold a news conference in Seoul on April 12. (Yonhap News)
Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hold a news conference in Seoul on April 12. (Yonhap News)

“North Korea can also participate in this, of course,” she added.

The Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative will entail regular high-level meetings and other institutional measures, dealing primarily with softer, nonconventional security fields such as terrorism and drug trade; energy, logistics and environment; and humanitarian and disaster relief.

Comparing it to the Helsinki Accords, Europe’s tension-reduction system during the Cold War, Park has offered the so-called “Seoul Process” as an antidote to an Asian paradox, referring to the region’s escalating territorial and historical tensions despite growing economic interdependence.

While stressing the need for a correct understanding of history, South Korea, China and Japan can reach an unprecedented “grand reconciliation” through the Seoul Process, she wrote in an opinion piece to the Wall Street Journal in November.

“A Northeast Asia that earnestly overcomes historical barriers can accentuate genuine trilateral cooperation among Korea, China and Japan,” she wrote.

“New synergies are possible by merging the region’s capital, technology, manpower and innovations. In turn, such efforts can make contributions to resolving key regional and global problems.”

The plans face daunting challenges, however, as Pyongyang’s renewed brinkmanship has placed the regional security landscape in a fix and tensions among regional powers are escalating over territorial and historical disputes.

Deeping animosity and mistrust have foiled any efforts so far to build a peace and security mechanism in Northeast Asia.

Pyongyang’s nuclear ambition torpedoed a landmark agreement between the two Koreas, the U.S, China, Japan and Russia in 2005 to forge lasting peace and stability in Northeast Asia and negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

Park’s trustpolitik has already been endangered in the face of North Korea’s missile and nuclear test that has drained Seoul’s strategic options.

With no inter-Korean communication channel still open and Gaeseong now almost vacant, trustpolitik might end up as merely a slogan, skeptics say. The six-nation denuclearization talks were also last held in December 2008, and its resumption appears quite far off.

Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the U.S., predicted that Park’s “best-laid foreign policy plans” may be destroyed by real-world events.

“The general consensus was that, at this point, there are very limited ways of building trust with Pyongyang,” he wrote on Foreign Policy magazine’s blog last week.

“Furthermore, the likelihood of any confidence-building measures getting scrubbed during the next crisis is very high.”

In addition, the feasibility of a new partnership is being eroded by Japan’s drastic swing to the right that is deepening its territorial and historical spats with South Korea and China.

This year’s trilateral summit among the three countries, launched in 2008, is expected to be delayed in the aftermath of a string of visits by Japanese officials to a controversial war shrine and their remarks denying the country’s imperial past.

The involvement of the U.S. in the regional initiative may also backfire by intensifying its war of nerves with an increasingly assertive China, which is Pyongyang’s ally and patron and is already uneasy about Washington’s “rebalancing” toward Asia, experts say.

“In the lead up to the detente, Europe was seeking ways to stabilize its status quo on the basis of peaceful coexistence. And the Helsinki process began after all their territorial disputes were settled,” said Choi Kang, a professor at the state-run Korea National Diplomatic Academy’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

“But here in Asia we’re witnessing the status quo faltering in the face of a relative U.S. decline, China’s emergence and territorial rows.”

Nonetheless, the initiative has significance in its emphasis on trust in foreign relations and in its role in putting the two presidents on the same page in terms of situation management, Choi noted.

“Though Park’s presidency ends in five years, it’s crucial to establish the foundation for such a process to set sail and maintain momentum over a longer term,” he said.

“A top-down approach is more meaningful, and agreement between top leaders makes it easier to push forward with the project.”

Charles Kupchan, an international affairs professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, cited the European case to underscore the need for confidence-building measures before fostering trust, in particular between the two Koreas.

“(Trust) is what it’s all about ― but it comes toward the end of the process, not at the beginning,” he said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald on the sidelines of a conference in Seoul hosted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“What comes at the beginning is what is called confidence-building measures, reciprocal gestures that indicate benign intent, so that the two sides can make concessions.

“And you do three, four, five, six kinds of discreet steps over the course of several years. What the output of that would be (is) that you begin to build trust. That’s what she means by Helsinki process ― thickening networks of negotiations and of ties. That’s heading in the exactly right direction.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (