The visit of South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye to the United States in early May was an unqualified success. She got along famously with President Obama and accomplished what he has been unable to do with the American Congress, winning the admiration – and an ovation – from both houses. The fifth Korean president to have addressed a joint session, she appeared at a perfect time – eight weeks after North Korea had conducted its third underground nuclear test, had pronounced the Korean peninsula “in a state of war” and boasted of its ability to rain nuclear terror as far away as the US.
Who could possibly question Park’s declaration to the cheering American Congress that it was “time to put an end to this vicious cycle” or her desire to see the two Koreas reunited – eventually? And what could possibly have happened to distract from the triumph of her first trip overseas since her inauguration in February?
The answer to the second question is a sex scandal that enthralled the South Korean media, forced the resignation of the chastened aide as well as his boss and elicited jeers and sneers from the North Korean media as well. Thus Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Yoon Chang-jung, spokesman for President Park, “committed a sex scandal” – with the “s” in South Korea in lower case as befitting a country that the North refuses to recognize as a sovereign entity. Yoon, said KCNA, had “wined till late at night with a woman at a hotel near the White House, not at a hotel where he put up.”
The U.S. has weathered so many much more severe sex scandals that Yoon’s indiscretion with an intern in the South Korean mission in Washington, whatever the details, may have appeared of less than overwhelming international significance. Most definitely, however, it amounted to the hugest embarrassment to confront President Park since her inauguration in February.
Instead of gloating about her summit with Obama and her meetings with so many other VIPs during her five-day visit, Park had to apologize on her first day back for “the shock the female student and her parents must have received and the scars left on the hearts of compatriots” in the US while vowing to “take whatever measures are necessary” and “cooperate actively in the US investigation.”
In fact, the case may suggest more than a few “cultural differences” — about the only real defense short of denial that Yoon can make. In a party mood on a tiring mission, could Yoon have forgotten where he was or what he was doing? In the US, sexual harassment can get a person fired, sued or arrested a lot more easily than in South Korea. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in a survey in 2010 found that female workers in South Korea earn 39 percent less on average than men — the widest gap among the 28 nations surveyed.
On a different level, though, Yoon’s offense was unbelievably minor in comparison to the scandals that have inundated the American political scene since Bill Clinton, amid revelations about his relationship with an intern in the oval office, uttered one of the more memorable presidential quotes — “I did not have sex with that woman.” Certainly Yoon’s case had no effect on Park’s mission, on the relationship that she formed with President Obama or on South Korea’s image abroad.
Park and Obama totally charmed one another as they affirmed their determination to stand up to North Korean threats. They could be thankful that North Korea, when they met, was already toning down the rhetoric. The “crisis,” if ever there was one, had passed, the correspondents who had rushed to Seoul were departing, and the clouds of “imminent war” were lifting. The crisis, it seemed, had been a mirage. Obama and Park could look to a future of close collaboration, the US-Korean alliance as strong as ever. As Obama put it after his private meeting with Park, “The days when North Korea could create a crisis and elicit concessions, those days are over.”
Such confidence, though, also carried risks for the US. How could the Americans think of aiding rebel factions in Syria while worrying about the defense of South against North Korea? Obama and his people in the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council might talk of a “pivot” to Asia, but might the North Koreans sense opportunity if the US were still bogged down a few thousand miles away? The threat level remains high enough for the US to promise not to further reduce its strength in South Korea, down to 28,500 after shipping about 10,000 troops from Korea to Iraq and Afghanistan. About 48,000 US troops remain in Japan, including 18,000 Marines in Okinawa who would undoubtedly go to South Korea if hostilities broke out there.
These were all considerations Obama had to weigh in his meeting with Park as he again pledged complete support for America’s South Korean ally. Other issues were conveniently put aside. Among them was the nuclear cooperation agreement that the US reached with South Korea in 1972. Interestingly, Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, was president at the time – and had a hankering for South Korea to become a nuclear power. The cooperation agreement, banning the South from enriching uranium or reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, was to expire next year but has been extended for two years. The US is standing fast against any deal that might enable South Korea to develop nuclear warheads as demanded by South Korean politicos in order to match North Korea’s nukes.
Obama and Park also sidestepped US demands for South Korea to pay more for the high price of the US keeping troops in the South and only briefly mentioned OPCON. That’s the plan for the US to hand over operational control from US to South Korean command in case of war – a transition so difficult that US and South Korean military experts wonder if it’s a good idea.
All of which gets back to the question: How can the US, in a time of “sequestration” of funding consider involvement in the Middle East and still guarantee the defense of South Korea? After all those North Korean threats, Park and her advisers no doubt were looking for answers. Basically, nothing much seems to have changed as a result of Park’s visit. Haven’t we been hearing the strongest affirmations of US support of South Korea and denunciations of the North’s evil designs for years?
Yes, the bluster from Pyongyang this year was a few decibels higher than normal, but it all comes down to, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Except that perhaps they’re not changing at all – which, in a way, is good news. We don’t have a war. Life goes on in South Korea. American lives are not in danger. Still, same old/same old is not helping millions of North Koreans for whom there’s no relief from hunger, disease and suffering while tens of thousands languish in prison camps unto death.
For relief, both Obama and Park are looking in the other direction, west toward China. The immediate future of the North-South Korean standoff may rest in the hands of China’s President Xi Jinping, who’s seeing both Obama and Park in June. First Obama and Xi Jinping meet early in the month in the pleasant setting of Sunnylands, the Walter and Lenore Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage, southern California, in a bid, according to the State Department, “to enhance cooperation while constructively managing our differences.” Then, later in the month, Park makes her second overseas trip as president for her second summit – this one with Xi in Beijing.
All three presidents will be talking about how to get North Korea to the negotiating table. Xi would appear to hold the cards in the wake of a visit to Beijing by North Korea’s Choe Ryong-hae, one of the three or four most powerful people around North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un. As vice chairman of the central military commission of the Workers’ Party, Choe has been a guiding figure in asserting party control over the military. Choe, rushing off to Beijing after the announcement of the meeting between Obama and Xi, got the message loud and clear – Xi wants six-party talks on denuclearization, last held in Beijing in December 2008, to resume in the quest for “stability” on the nuclear peninsula.
KCNA, reporting the scandal of Park’s spokesman during her Washington trip, claimed “different countries including the US are giving wide publicity to the case, pointing an accusing finger at the puppet group and becoming vocal censuring and deriding the scandal.” The scandal made for juicy headlines in South Korea too, but the Obama-Park summit laid the groundwork for a series of meetings that have put North Korea on the defensive, uncertain how far to pursue its nuclear and missile programs and wary of flagging support from China.
What could be a more severe rebuff than for President Xi to host President Park with no apparent thought of receiving North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un? Choe pursued the quest for a Xi-Kim summit, passing on a letter to Xi from Kim, but Xi clearly thinks he has more to gain by seeing Park first while waiting to see what North Korea does about six-party talks. In a sense, the Xi-Park summit is the biggest dividend of the Obama-Park summit.
Donald Kirk is a veteran journalist with decades of experience living and working in Asia.