For every South Korean president, dealing with superpower neighbors like China and Japan always poses challenges. Yet, no Korean leader in recent years has faced as tough a challenge as President Park Geun-hye will encounter when she hosts the Korea-China-Japan summit and the bilateral talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
A look at some background of the three-way talks and the Park-Abe summit will indicate how heavyheartedly Park and the other two leaders will be taking their seats.
The tripartite talks started in 2008 and leaders from the three countries held such a meeting four more times until May 2012. The three-way meeting has been on hiatus since then, in the wake of a territorial dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
The South Korean and Japanese leaders have also shunned each other for the same 3 1/2 years, as they failed to find common ground on disputes over historical issues like the military sex slavery.
Given the sensitivity of the issues to be tackled by the three leaders, even arranging the summits has not been easy. Aides to the three leaders had been engaged in tense tugs-of-war over details of the meetings until the last minute.
Chinese and Japanese officials even had not reached an agreement on a meeting between Premier Li Keqiang, who will be arriving in Seoul on Saturday, and Abe until the time of writing this editorial.
As for Park and Abe, reports said that their summit would have “three noes” – no luncheon, no joint statement and no joint news conference. All these show how tense the atmosphere will be.
Adding to the already highly nerve-wracking situation surrounding the Seoul summits is the recent escalation of military tension in the South China Sea. The U.S. challenge to China’s expansionist moves in the area will certainly weigh heavily in the series of summits involving the three leaders.
The summit between Park and Abe will likely focus on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the recent revision of Japanese security laws that allow its Self-Defense Forces to engage in overseas combat and the military sex slavery issue.
The thorniest issue will be the sex slavery issue, as both sides made it clear that the two leaders will discuss the issue. Park and Abe should also try to set clear guidelines on Japanese forces’ possible engagement in the case of a contingency on the Korean Peninsula.
Given all the sensitivity and complexity of the issues at stake, it will not be easy for the tripartite talks and the Park-Abe talks to produce outcomes that satisfy all the parties.
But what is certain is that all the agreements and disagreements the leaders will make in Seoul will have considerable bearing not only on relations among the three countries but also on the geopolitical dynamics in the region.
One humble hope is that the three leaders will at least agree to continue to hold the three-way talks and that Park and Abe agree to revive the “shuttle summits” -- in which Korean and Japanese leaders exchange short working visits whenever necessary -- between the two sides. This alone would give Park a moderate scorecard.