WASHINGTON—On her first overseas visit as leader of the Republic of South Korea (ROK) and against the backdrop of North Korea’s recent belligerent actions, President Park Geun-hye joined U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House Tuesday, reaffirming the U.S.-Korea alliance on its 60th anniversary.
“The President and I shared the view that the Korea-U.S. alliance has been faithfully carrying out its role as a bulwark of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia,” said Park, who, at 61, is not only the first democratically elected female leader in South Korea, but also the first in Northeast Asia.
“The alliance should continue to serve as a linchpin for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Asia,” she said.
President Obama praised Park for her strength in dealing with the rogue neighbor saying the ROK had faced threats and provocations that would test any nation. The provocations had only served to strengthen the US–ROK relationship, he said.
“If Pyongyang thought its recent threats would drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States, or somehow garner the North international respect, today is further evidence that North Korea has failed again,” Obama said.
In an effort to reduce North Korea’s increasing isolation, Park has indicated she is willing to engage Pyongyang but on her terms. On Tuesday she reiterated her firm stand.
“North Korea will not be able to survive if it only clings to developing its nuclear weapons at the expense of its people’s happiness. Concurrently pursuing nuclear arsenals and economic development can by no means succeed,” she said.
As the daughter of former president, Park Chung-hee, and presently leader of the conservative Saenuri or New Frontier Party (formerly called the Grand National Party), Park is no stranger to tough politics.
In a botched assassination attempt on her father, her mother was killed in 1974. The assassination attempt was directed by North Korea’s communist leadership. As the eldest daughter, she replaced her mother as the first lady until 1979 when her father was assassinated by his own intelligence chief.
Her present visit is underscored by the close personal relationship President Obama had developed with her predecessor, Korean former president Lee Myung-bak, under whose term an historic free trade agreement was signed between the two countries.
South Korea is presently the sixth largest trading partner of the United States, producing exports and imports totaling $101 billion in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
That agreement, now over a year old, has created no discernible tensions says Scott A. Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations.
“There’s some marginal increase in trade between the United States and South Korea, and there have been no real hiccups so far,” he said in a CFR report.
Park will be keen, however, to establish her own relationship with Obama, says Victor Cha from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
One of her key themes is “trust politics,” particularly with North Korea, “But … at the core of her center of gravity is the U.S.-Korea alliance,” said Cha in a statement.
In a gesture intended to highlight the importance of the relationship, Park is scheduled to address a joint meeting of Congress on May 8. She will also meet with the large Korean-American community in Los Angeles later in the week before returning to Seoul.