Coincidentally or not, President Park Geun-hye has shown a pattern of going on overseas trips when sensitive issues or situations arise at home. She embarked on a six-day trip to Central Asia on Monday, a day before a motion calling for the parliamentary confirmation of her prime ministerial nominee was to be sent to the National Assembly.
Last month, Park left Seoul for an overnight visit to the United Arab Emirates shortly after announcing measures to cope with the aftermath of a deadly ferry sinking that claimed more than 300 lives. She was also absent when political conflicts escalated last year over a set of incendiary issues.
Opposition parties criticized Park’s latest trip, saying it was ill-timed and seemed designed to pass the responsibility for the mounting controversy over past remarks by the prime ministerial nominee regarding the nation’s modern history to parliament. But the criticism appears too inward-focused, disregarding the importance of enhancing ties with the three Central Asian countries on Park’s itinerary ― Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
South Korean companies could find more business opportunities if cooperation with those nations expands from energy and resources to infrastructure construction, information communications technology and science. Strengthened partnerships with them might also serve as a foundation for achieving the “Eurasia initiative” proposed by Park in October, which calls for upgraded transport networks and free trade among Eurasian countries to create what could become a huge market rivaling the European Union.
Diplomatic support, especially from Kazakhstan, which has achieved remarkable economic success since it abandoned nuclear weapons following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, would help set a concrete example for North Korea to follow.
Park’s trip should also serve as an occasion to shed light on the possible roles ethnic Koreans in Central Asia could assume in consolidating partnerships between South Korea and the region. About 400,000 ethnic Koreans live in former Soviet republics, with more than 280,000 in the three countries Park is visiting this week.
Various measures should be implemented to help connect the descendants of Koreans who fled Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula in the early 20th century with South Korea. Rather than taking issue with the timing of Park’s trip, opposition lawmakers need to pay greater heed to legislative support for establishing more Korean language institutes in Central Asia and making it easier for ethnic Koreans from the region to visit and stay here.