President Park Geun-hye’s government has been successful in strengthening ties with the U.S. and China, though it faces an increasingly difficult strategic task of striking a delicate balance between the two superpowers.
Under her presidency that started in February last year, however, South Korea’s relations with North Korea and Japan have remained frozen. At the moment, it still seems hard for South Korea to find momentum for improving ties with the two neighboring countries. Pyongyang is indicating it will continue missile launches and Tokyo is clinging to a course of historical revisionism.
But it is not in Seoul’s interests to continue to leave relations with Pyongyang and Tokyo like this. If prolonged further, strained ties with them may put a greater limit on South Korea’s diplomatic and security strategies. Improvement in inter-Korean relations would expand Seoul’s room for maneuver in coping with changes in Northeast Asian geopolitics. Rebuilding a practical partnership with Japan would help South Korea increase its leverage against North Korea by consolidating trilateral security cooperation with the U.S.
Recent moves by Pyongyang and Tokyo to improve bilateral ties also increase the need for Seoul to take a more flexible and sophisticated approach. The two sides, both alerted by the strengthening partnership between South Korea and China, have made progress in talks on settling mutual issues. Last month, Tokyo lifted some of its unilateral sanctions against the impoverished communist state in reward for Pyongyang’s reinvestigation into Japanese nationals kidnapped to North Korea decades earlier. Diplomatic observers see the possibility of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe making a trip to Pyongyang within this year to settle the issue of abductees and open the way for normalizing ties between the two sides.
Seoul officials may also be concerned about a possible meeting between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing in November. Xi reportedly expressed his desire to mend Sino-Japanese ties, which have been strained over territorial and historical disputes, when he met former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who visited China in late July. The summit between the Chinese and Japanese leaders, which would mark a shift in Beijing’s stance, would put President Park in an awkward position, as she has shunned bilateral talks with Abe since she took office.
These changes in diplomatic circumstances might lead to South Korea suddenly finding itself isolated in the region. Seoul officials need to pursue more active and adroit strategies to avoid being placed in such an unfavorable situation.
South Korea may seize the opportunity to move in that direction during a set of annual meetings led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including Asia’s biggest security gathering, known as the ASEAN Regional Forum, to be held this weekend in Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar.
Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se needs to take the lead in holding one-on-one talks with his counterparts from North Korea and Japan on the sidelines of the multilateral conference. These bilateral discussions would help Seoul have a more accurate grasp of the intentions of Pyongyang and Tokyo, which could be taken into consideration in deciding what messages to give them in Park’s Aug. 15 Liberation Day speech.
North Korea has reacted negatively to Park’s principled policy of building trust between the two Koreas and emphasis on benefits from the national reunification. In this regard, South Korea needs to focus on promoting conventional exchanges and cooperation with North Korea. In short-term initiatives, it may offer financial support for the North’s delegation to the Asian Games to be held in the South next month and propose resuming the reunions of separated families.
In handling its relationship with Japan, South Korea may reach the point of starting to work on sophisticated ways to detach thorny historical and territorial issues from practical cooperation for mutual benefit.