By Ellen Kim
U.S. president Barack Obama made an official visit to South Korea on April 25-26. Starting his four-nation trip to Asia with a state visit to Japan, President Obama made a two-day stopover in South Korea en route to Malaysia and the Philippines. This was President Obama’s fourth visit to South Korea, the most of any Asian country during his presidency.
It is worth noting that the Seoul trip was not initially planned. The Seoul stopover was belatedly added to the president’s itinerary to avert a potential fallout over tensions in the region. Obama’s trip to Asia this time was watched closely by Asian countries, not only because he had cancelled a similar trip to the region last October, but more importantly for signs of his administration’s resolve and commitment to its rebalancing policy, which has come under increasing scrutiny lately. A recent Senate Foreign Relations committee report released before Obama’s trip was the latest to chime in with its take that an “unbalanced” rebalance policy will instead undermine the administration’s goals in the region. A trip that would skip Seoul after his visit to Tokyo, especially when South Korea-Japan relations remain in bitter contention and Seoul is increasingly warming towards Beijing, could have sent an unintended message to South Korea and also to the region.
President Obama arrived in Seoul to a host nation that was in national mourning over the tragic sinking of Sewol ferry that cost more than 300 South Korean lives, many of whom were high school students. This tragedy spilled over into President Obama’s visit. The president’s staff cut out a musical event on the itinerary and kept the overall tone and atmosphere of the summit meeting more calm and consolable. President Obama handed President Park Geun-hye a U.S. flag that flown over the White House on the day the ferry disaster occurred, and a magnolia seed from the White House to offer the American people’s sympathy and deep condolences to their friends, the South Koreans, demonstrating the two countries’ solidarity and friendship in a time of difficulty.
The optics of the summit between President Obama and South Korean president Park were positive. Although there was no summit deliverable, the two leaders’ agreement to reconsider another delay of the currently scheduled 2015 transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean forces from the United States to South Korea was the headline of their summit. This announcement came against the backdrop of reports of increased activities at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site. In response to telltale signs of North Korea’s preparation for a fourth nuclear test, the two presidents jointly voiced a strong and clear message that any forms of future provocation by North Korea will only be met with further isolation and a stronger international response. At the same time, both leaders stressed the importance of China’s role and cooperation in deterring the North’s provocation.
Presidents Obama and Park also recognized that trilateral cooperation between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo is crucial and necessary to respond to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. In addressing intense historical tensions in South Korea-Japan relations during a joint press conference, President Obama unusually spoke out on the comfort women issue. Calling what happened to these women a “terrible, egregious violation of human rights” and stating that “they deserve to be heard [and] respected,” President Obama urged Japan to settle the disputes over the issue. Furthermore, he also publicly called on Japan and South Korea to work together to resolve historical tensions and to move forward for their common interests.
On the economic front, Presidents Obama and Park discussed ways to ensure the full implementation of the KORUS FTA and also agreed to coordinate in regards to South Korea’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). On the sidelines of the summit, President Obama attended a Chamber of Commerce breakfast with American and Korean business executives to promote greater trade, investment and economic cooperation between the two countries.
Overall, President Obama’s visit to Korea was more about delivering a message of commitment and friendship rather than seeking deliverables. Compared to President Obama’s visit to Japan—where his summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was largely transactional in securing TPP in exchange for the U.S. security pledge to defend the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands—President Obama returned nine ancient Korean seals to South Korea that were lost during the Korean War. During his two days in Seoul, President Obama also visited the War Memorial of Korea and Gyeongbok Palace. Lastly, the two presidents of the United States and South Korea made a joint visit to the U.S.-ROK Combined Forces of Command (CFC) for the first time since its establishment in 1978 to demonstrate U.S.-ROK joint defense capabilities against North Korea.
Ellen Kim is a fellow with the Korea Chair at CSIS.