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(LEAD) (News Focus) Park's summit diplomacy next month to focus on THAAD, N.K. threats

2016/08/19 16:53

(ATTN: RECASTS 17th para; ADDS more info in paras 24-25)

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Aug. 19 (Yonhap) -- President Park Geun-hye's summit diplomacy next month is likely to focus on highlighting the necessity of deploying an advanced U.S. missile defense system in South Korea and tightening international cooperation against Pyongyang's unrelenting military threats, analysts here said Friday.

On Sept. 2, Park will embark on a weeklong trip to Russia, China and Laos for a series of multilateral and bilateral summits on regional and global issues, which would serve as a crucial opportunity for her to ensure that the international community remains united against North Korea's nuclear adventurism, local observers said.

Above all, the most pressing task for the president is to ease tensions with Beijing and Moscow, which have strenuously opposed the plan by Seoul and Washington to station a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery on the peninsula by end-2017.

"Her trip to Russia and China was arranged in the midst of various forms of pressure on South Korea to scrap the THAAD deployment plan," Nam Chang-hee, international politics professor at Inha University, said.

"Park should stay focused steadfastly on seeking understanding for Seoul's position that the deployment was an inevitable choice in response to Pyongyang's growing missile and nuclear threats."

  

This photo, taken on April 1, 2016, shows President Park Geun-hye (L) shaking hands with her Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping before their talks on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. (Yonhap) This photo, taken on April 1, 2016, shows President Park Geun-hye (L) shaking hands with her Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping before their talks on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. (Yonhap)

On Sept. 2, Park will fly to Vladivostok, Russia, for the Eastern Economic Summit and a bilateral meeting with her Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin. Following her trip to Russia, she will travel to Hangzhou, China, on Sept. 4 for the Group of 20 (G20) summit.

Laos will be the last leg of her three-nation trip. From Sept. 7-9, Park will attend the forums related to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and a bilateral summit with her Laotian counterpart Bounnhang Vorachith.

During the multilateral summits, Park is expected to encounter the leaders of the United States, China and Japan, among others. But her aides said whether Park will hold bilateral summits with any of them is yet to be determined.

The South Korean chief executive is expected to capitalize on these gatherings to stress that the planned deployment of THAAD will not target any country other than North Korea.

Amid strong opposition from China and Russia, Park has defended the deployment plan as a "self-defense" measure, vowing not to bow to any pressure when it comes to the crucial issue of national security.

Beijing and Moscow believe that a THAAD battery on the Korean Peninsula would strengthen America's military clout in the Asia-Pacific region and thus undermine their security interests.

China's opposition to THAAD, in particular, has caused a diplomatic headache for Park as she has been striving to strengthen the strategic partnership with the Asian power -- despite growing concerns both in Seoul and Washington that South Korea, America's core ally in the region, was tilting too much towards China.

This graphic, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows an advanced U.S. anti-missile system. (Yonhap) This graphic, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows an advanced U.S. anti-missile system. (Yonhap)

Since Park took office in February 2013, the South Korean leader has been trying to shore up trust with China, South Korea's key partner for trade and tourism, as part of a plan to push the North to denuclearize and lay the foundation for reunification of the divided country.

The former Lee Myung-bak government gave short shrift to China with its policy thought to have focused inordinately on the U.S. It sought to strengthen the South Korea-U.S. alliance, which had buckled under his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun, who pursued a more "balanced" relationship with the country's superpower ally.

During her possible encounter with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Park may seek to patch things up with him, the observers said.

Ensuring that the international community maintains a united front against the North's nuclear program would be another critical task for Park's multilateral diplomacy drive next month.

With the THAAD row seen as part of an intensifying rivalry between the U.S. and China, concerns have persisted that Seoul's hosting of an anti-ballistic missile battery could make Beijing and Moscow less willing to faithfully enforce the anti-Pyongyang sanctions.

In March, the U.N. Security Council imposed the toughest-ever set of sanctions on the communist state for its nuclear test in January and long-range rocket test the following month.

"Park may be able to garner China's understanding over the THAAD issue by emphasizing to Xi that Seoul would not have decided to deploy THAAD had Beijing taken a meaningful step to prevent Pyongyang from advancing its nuclear and missile programs," Inha University's Nam said.

At the multilateral summits in China and Laos, maritime disputes over the South China Sea could also be dealt with at the gatherings, which could put Park in a diplomatically challenging situation.

Seoul has maintained that freedom of navigation and flight over the South China Sea should be protected, and that the strategically vital waterway should not be militarized. But it has been cautious not to step into the increasingly sensitive spats over territorial issues centered on the South China Sea.

In Laos, Park is expected to seek ways to further strengthen economic ties with the ASEAN, whose regional influence has been increasing since it launched the ASEAN Economic Community late last year, experts pointed out.

In recent years, Seoul has intensified efforts to build deeper, wider economic ties with the resource-rich ASEAN that boasts a huge market with the combined population of 632 million. ASEAN is South Korea's second-largest trade partner with two-way trade reaching US$119 billion last year.

Besides South Korea, the bloc has also been courted by regional powers well aware of its growing geopolitical influence.

Southeast Asian states are of great strategic importance, particularly for the U.S. and China, as they stretch across the Indian and Pacific Oceans where the world's most crucial trading and energy supply routes pass, including the vulnerable and congested Strait of Malacca.

"The ASEAN is rich in natural resources and labor force -- a reason why South Korean companies have been seeking to advance into it," Jang Jun-young, Southeast Asia expert at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

Jang added that Seoul needs to expand its diplomatic cooperation with the ASEAN over various issues including North Korea-related ones -- rather than focusing its policy toward the bloc wholly on the economic dimension.

This photo, taken on Nov. 22, 2015, shows President Park Geun-hye (5th from L) and the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) posing for a photo at the South Korea-ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Yonhap) This photo, taken on Nov. 22, 2015, shows President Park Geun-hye (5th from L) and the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) posing for a photo at the South Korea-ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Yonhap)

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