The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a media call with Chung Min Lee and James. L Schoff on South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s visit to Washington and her meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama.
You can listen to audio of the call here.
Transcript not checked against delivery.
Tom Carver: Good morning, this is Tom Carver here. I’m Vice President at Carnegie Endowment. This is a media call on the U.S.-South Korea summit which is coming up this week. I’m pleased to have with me on the phone from Seoul, Chung Min Lee, who is our nonresident senior associate in our Asia Program and was formerly appointed by President Park as ambassador for national security affairs in June 2013, and is now a professor of international affairs at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies. And I have with me here in the room, Jim Schoff, who is a senior associate here in the Asia program and runs our Japan program.
So this call is for 30 minutes. It’s on the record and a transcript will be made available about 24 hours afterwards if you miss any of it. We have a number of callers from all over the world. So please, when you call, keep your questions short and to the point, and then we can get through as many questions as possible.
So why don’t we start with Chung Min Lee. Do you want to just say a few words to set the context from how you see this summit going from your perspective?
Chung Min Lee: Sure, Tom. First of all let me say hi to all our great journalist friends from all over the world and to my very dear friend Jim Schoff at Carnegie.
Just three quick points: President Park is visiting Washington right after Prime Minister Abe in April and more recently President Xi Jinping. So she becomes the third major Asian leader to meet with President Obama. And I think she will stress three major points:
Number one, obviously we want to speak on the same sheet of music vis-à-vis North Korea. Kim Jong-un has not yet done a fourth nuclear test, or a long-range missile test, although he threatens all the time. So we want to make sure that we want to control North Korea.
Second key point on the agenda is to make sure that South Korea reaffirms the critical alliance with the U.S. President Park visited China, as you all know, and she saw the military parade. And some people here in Washington or maybe elsewhere said, “Is Korea tilting towards China?” My personal and professional answer is no.
And the third point is South Korea wants to make sure that, whether it’s Japan or South China Sea or whatever regional issue there may be, that the U.S., Japan, and South Korea also cooperate on a range of political and economic issues.
Carver: Great. Jim?
James Schoff: Sure, thank you very much. And it’s a pleasure to be on the phone Chung Min as well. I don’t have too much to add to that. I guess I was trying to think of what label I would put on this summit and the idea that came to mind as the geopolitics summit. Certainly the alliance issues are always front and center, but there is nothing quite as controversial or as pending right now. They’ll continue to talk about North Korea, of course. About deterrence plans that they have for North Korea’s increased missile and nuclear capabilities—trade some intelligence on that front. Talk about transfer of wartime operational control down the line. Possibly talk a little about the potential introduction of new missile defenses, THAAD missile defenses, in case North Korea continues to increase its missile capabilities.
But really it’s about setting the strategic direction I think for the next five-to-ten years as Chung Min is talking about. Korea’s relationship with China, where is that going, how can that be beneficial to the alliance going forward in dealing with North Korea but also dealing with regional economic issues.
Lots of concern about China’s economy, it’s having a negative impact on South Korea’s economy and the broader region as a whole. So economic issues will be up there. There is hopefully going to be a summit among the leaders of Korea, China, and Japan hosted in Seoul coming up later this year—trying to improve Japan-Korea relations, trying to foster regional cooperation. Where does Russia fit in all of this? So the geopolitics is increasingly important. And South Korea is increasingly an important player in the geopolitics of the region. And I think that’s really a coming of age story as well.
Carver: Chung Min, how important is this for President Park back home, domestically?
Lee: Well, you know all political leaders, particularly democratic ones, are concerned about their poll ratings, and President Park is doing very well. She is exactly in her middle of a five-year term, a single five-year term. Latest poll puts her at 51 percent approval rating, which is historically, very, very high for a South Korean president at this point in office. And she wants to show the Korean people that she’s able to deal with these hugely important geopolitical issues, and obviously she wants to make sure that South Korea has a competitive edge vis-à-vis, for example, the TPP, although she’s not officially part of the first round of TPP countries. So she wants assure the Korean public that she stands shoulder-to shoulder with President Obama on North Korea, that she’s very close ----- China, but that notwithstanding that, that her closest and most important ally in the world is the U.S. And I think that’s the basic message that she wants to send to Koreans as well as to friends in the U.S.
Carver: And the relationship, Jim, with Japan, is that an issue for the Obama administration—the fact that it’s become ____?
Schoff: Well it certainly will be. It’s a primary concern to the United States and Obama has had a history of trying to foster dialogue between Prime Minister Abe of Japan and President Park, and they held a trilateral summit meeting in The Hague last year on this front.
But I think the U.S. doesn’t want to get too deeply involved and try to be seen as being pushing President Park. It’s really more about encouragement. Anything we can do to facilitate, especially in the security cooperation area vis-à-vis North Korea, but maybe also in the economics sphere. You have the TPP issue that’s been, agreement that’s been negotiated. There’s certainly going to be a lot of interest by President Park and will this be passed by the Congress, what are President Obama’s plans, how can Korea become part of this higher standard of trade rules? Many ways that the U.S.- Korea free trade agreement was a real model and could facilitate down the road, so that’s an issue. China’s supported AIIB, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Korea is a part of that. The United States is not. Japan is not. So these are areas where communication amongst the allies can be very beneficial, and this is a great opportunity for the two leaders to talk about these things.
Carver: OK. Let’s open it up to questions.
Reporter: Thanks. Jim, you raised two questions in your opening presentation. I just have to return to, you said, “Where is the relationship with China going?” and “Where the relationship with Russia?” Is the United States concerned about the direction of either of those? Can you just talk the overview?
Schoff: Sure, I think, on China, as Chung Min alluded to, there was certainly some concern in Washington when President Park went to Beijing and viewed the military parade. In particular, some would say, it was not appropriate given the fact that missiles are being wield by that are specifically designed to hit U.S. targets in Guam and elsewhere.
But I think others were more understanding and forgiving because I think the main reason she was doing that was to increase, improve leverage vis-à-vis between North Korea. And the fact that she was standing next to Xi Jinping and the North Korean representative was about 70 or 80 people all the way over hanging out on the fringe was very important. And so that optic was also important.
There is some concern here in Washington in this regard because if President Park is trying not to offend Xi Jinping and China, that could limit our ability to introduce certain defensive systems like the THAAD system into Korea. Or it could limit the trilateral cooperation with Japan because South Korea doesn’t want to gang-up on North Korea or scare China in this regard.
But generally, I think President Park has been very balanced in this front. She’s resisted efforts by China in some of their summit meetings to play the history card jointly between South Korea and China vis-à-vis Japan. She’s said, “We’re not going gang up in that way.” South Korea remains open I think to the THAAD deployment if North Korea goes forward with another nuclear test.
So she’s still independent-minded and in many ways, I think is just fixing, or repairing, some of the strain in the relationship that was there 2010, 2011, during the ___ attack s in ____ when China really came to the support of North Korea, and South Korea-China relations were very strained. This is in a way, where geopolitically I think it makes a lot of sense for South Korea, but it’s important for the leaders to touch base and get that confidence going forward.
Russia’s a little less of a concern I think in the context of South Korea. There is a little bit more concern on Japan’s side in the United States about how far Prime Minister Abe is willing to go with President Putin to talk about territorial issues. But we’re certainly going to be looking for South Korean support in dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis, in dealing with solidarity vis-à-vis Iran, and in other forums standing up to Russia. Whether it’s related to Europe, Ukraine, these are issues South Korea has generally not played a role in, but I think the United States would like to get Korea more engaged in some of these global issues.
Carver: OK, thanks Jim. Next?
Reporter: Hi, good morning. Thanks for doing the call. Continuing on the China theme, how much will cybersecurity be part of the agenda, and does the U.S. have an ally, or are they looking for more from South Korea on combatting cyber espionage by China?
Lee: I think that’s a great issue because cybersecurity is, I would argue, at the very top of the bilateral security agenda between South Korea and the U.S. The U.S. ambassador here in Seoul has alluded to this; our high-level officials have done this as well.
Just for your information, South Korea is the target of one of the most consistent number of high-level attacks on our critical infrastructure, on our economy, on our businesses. I’m not going to say where these attacks originate from--- but they’re very close in South Korea obviously.
So this is an issue that both President Obama and President Park can really say we have to really move forward on this issue. And I think on this particular subject, there is no difference between Washington’s and Seoul’s views.
There’s one minor point on the China angle on all of this. We have talked to China about a number of issues, but I think from the American side, they would feel much more comfortable if we dealt with the American’s first on cybersecurity as a core national security and international security issue with the Americans.
Schoff: If I could just add, very briefly, President Park will be making her first personal visit to the Pentagon as president, as I understand it, and spending time over there. This is high on the agenda in the defense relationship between the two countries. So that will shine a spotlight on that front as well.
Carver: OK thanks, next?
Reporter: I just wondered, you mentioned THAAD earlier, where do you think things stand with that and do you think it’s going to be discussed in any shape or form, formally or otherwise? I was also curious about President Park’s visit today to the space center, what do you think that’s about? Thank you.
Lee: On the first question, I’m sure Jim has his own thoughts because he’s thought and written about the THAAD issue more than I have. THAAD is not formally on the agenda, as far as I know, between President Park and President Obama this time, although I’m sure that our defense minister in his bilateral talks with Defense Secretary Carter will be discussing a number of issues, possibly THAAD.
So both sides have said that if there is a need for deploying a THAAD or a THAAD-like system in the ROK, then they will visit the issue at that particular time but that issue has not been on the agenda officially for this particular summit. I think that’s where the South Koreans and the Americans see it, we have _____systems for close _____ attacks, there are ongoing efforts by the South Koreans and the Americans to beef up missile defense including our own ___ air missile defense system, but that is not an issue at this particular time.
Schoff: Right, and I do think that it will be, Chung Min’s right, about the agenda. And I do think however it will be touched upon probably in more general terms, probably in the context of reassurance about our commitment to the alliance and to the defense of Korea and maybe in vague terms about, you know, if certain situations deteriorate, or certain situations arise, underscoring our commitment in this area. I expect some talking points to touch on that at the high levels.
Lee: Just one quick thing – the one thing that we forget Jim is that there are hundreds of North Korean ballistic missiles that are target against every single counterforce and ___ in South Korea and Japan and perhaps even parts of the Western coast of the US. So when the Chinese get very upset about a potential ___ deployment, I think it’s crucial for the world to understand that the reason why the Americans and the Koreans might consider such a system is because, simply, of the proliferation of the North Korean missile threat. If there was no missile threat, there is no need for a ___ system in South Korea today.
Schoff: On the space visit, the other underlying theme, at least from President Park’s view, is she’s bringing a large private sector delegation with her on this trip. Part of this visit is about bolstering export opportunities and also attracting investment in Korea and particularly in the high tech realm. There is a bit of a space competition in the region, China has been moving forward of course with its program, Japan as well, I think Korea has aspirations for bolstering its capabilities in terms of satellite, space launch, and the like. I think underscoring this kind of high-tech cooperation and demonstrating South Korea’s prowess in this field is desirable. It’s something similar to what Prime Minister Abe did when he visited the United Sates as well back in April – emphasizing this helmet of prowess and cooperation.
Lee: On the space thing, South Korea has worked with Russia to develop our own indigenous launch vehicle, but I think President Park wants to visit the space center, the garden center, on the outskirts of DC, to show the Americans and the world that South Korea is very prepared to work fully with the Americans on space agenda.
Carver: Chung Min, just to return to the cyber security thing for a second, do we know whether South Kore has had conversations with China at a high level on this issue, if it’s such concern to them?
Lee: I think, you know, President Park has met with President Xi Jinping six times, the most of any Asian leader over the past several years. And she has mentioned cyber security in general terms but not as a burning issue between South Korea and China. But I think in a context of our own national security needs, and our own, you know for example, cyber security both in private and public and military sectors, that it’s much more in tune with what the Americans are concerned about, and I think in particular coming after the recent US-China agreement on cyberattacks, or preventing cyberattacks, this is one particular issue that President Park will want to discuss with President Obama.
Carver: Other questions?
Reporter: When this trip is over, when President Park leaves, what should we look for in terms of whether it’s been a successful summit. I mean is there anything we’re actually looking for, to achieve, to make it a success?
Carver: Chung Min?
Lee: I think from my personal point of view–There will be a joint statement obviously after she meets with President Obama on the 16th. And there will be some, I hope, fairly positive press coverage in the DC area or nationally in the U.S. But the most important message, going into 2016, since you guys elections, is that South Korea is one of the most important U.S. allies in Asia, and I would argue in the world at large. Japan is a core pillar of U.S. strategy in Asia, President Obama wants to leave a legacy , both for security and economic reasons, his pivot to Asia has substance. He’s got to show the world that the Koreans can work with Americans on regional and global issues as well as the Japanese. I think if President Park and President Obama can say something positive about the Korean-Japanese relationship and potential US-Japan-Korea cooperation on a range of issues, that really does I guess close the circle in so far as President Obamas Asia policy is concerned at the end of 2016 and going into the important U.S. presidential election next year.
Schoff: I guess I would only add that certainly because this meeting was postponed due to the mayor’s crisis in Korea at the time earlier this year, some of the deliverables have already been delivered in a sense and there aren’t as many tangible deliverables this particular time around. To me, what would make it a success is a little bit hard to measure, perhaps, but the absence of any high-profile problems in the relationship in the next six months or so. By that I mean, when there’s a trilateral summit, China-Korea-Japan, how smoothly does that go, how smoothly does the Japan-Korea aspect of that carried out. If the United states sails closely within some of these artificial islands in the South China Sea and China makes a big stink about that, how supportive is South Korea of the U.S. position or the principle of that freedom of navigation. For example, are we seeing -- what level of solidarity vis-a-vis steps that North Korea might take in the near future. We could have family reunions quite soon between the North and South -- maybe that could open up some engagement opportunities between the the north and south, how smoothly does the United States and Korea present a unified front in the absence of friction on some of these key issues I think will demonstrate that they had a productive meeting here in Washington.
Lee: Can I just a recent poll that came out a couple of days ago from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs? Just three numbers. According to this poll that came out a couple of days ago, 83 percent of Americans believe that South Korea is an important ally, 62 percent support a strong South Korean role in world affairs, and 66 percent see South Korea as a reliable partner – the highest numbers since these polls were taken by the Chicago Council since 1978. I think that really speaks on how much the alliance has grown in the past four or five decades.
Carver: You mentioned the South China Sea, I was going to mention that. Do you have thoughts on that Chung Min, if there is some sort of flashpoint like Jim alluded to, which way President Park would go as it were?
Lee: Let me say this, you’re absolutely right. Like Japan, South Korea depends on 100 percent imported oil primarily from the Gulf states and the Middle East that goes through the Indian Ocean and up the state of ____, if something really bad happened in the South China Sea, that is a critical national security disaster for South Korea. Does it mean that we ___ send ships and do joint exercises, we have done that with the Indians and the ___ and the other countries involved. South Korea possibly could take a stronger stance on the South China issue. _____we say let the other disputants resolve the peacefully. Just because South Korea may not be as vocal on this as the Japanese, it doesn’t mean that we are not concerned. What we have done so far, under the radar, is we have beefed up security cooperation with the Vietnamese, the Filipinos, and the Indonesians so that South Korea can increase military cooperation and assistance to those countries that will have an indirect effect on beefing up their maritime capabilities ___ to a stronger and more potent Chinese maritime presence in that region.
Carver: My last question is just the trilateral summit – do we know where that’s going to be? Any details about that?
Lee: It’s going to be in Seoul at the end of October. I think not only will there for the first time in last couple of years, it will also be the first Korea-Japan summit in Seoul between President Park and Prime Minister Abe. And I hope that, for the first time since Park came to office, this will be a very important summit between the Japanese and the Koreans.
Carver: Great, OK. Thank you everyone for joining the call. If you have any further follow up questions, just email Clara and she can arrange for you to talk to them.
Thank you for taking part and that’s the end of the media call.