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(News Focus) Park wraps up summit diplomacy on higher note

All Headlines 09:00 September 09, 2016

By Song Sang-ho

VIENTIANE, Sept. 9 (Yonhap) -- Saddled with North Korea's escalating saber-rattling and tension with China and Russia over the planned deployment of a U.S. anti-missile system to South Korea, President Park Geun-hye began her overseas trip last week apparently on a low note.

But the mood has turned mostly positive as Park reaffirmed international unity against Pyongyang's evolving nuclear and missile programs, and agreed to strengthen "strategic communication" with Beijing and Moscow during her trip to Russia, China and Laos, observers said.

Her eight-day trip that ends Friday was marked by brisk diplomacy with four major powers -- the United States, China, Russia and Japan -- all of which reaffirmed their consistent positions against Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

"Major powers, including China, oppose the North's nuclear armament in principle, and this has been reaffirmed (during Park's trip)," said Chun In-young, professor emeritus at Seoul National University.

"China, in particular, does not want any instability stemming from Pyongyang's nuclear program, which will hinder Beijing's efforts to focus on settling its own domestic issues," the scholar added.

Her trip to attend back-to-back summits in Vladivostok, Russia; Hangzhou, China; and the Laotian capital of Vientiane came amid growing cross-border tension caused by Pyongyang's relentless provocations, including its launch of three mid-range ballistic missiles Monday and a test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile last month.

These provocations have helped Park make an impassioned case for the planned deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea during her talks with the leaders of Russia and China, who strongly oppose the missile defense shield, analysts said.

"For South Korea, which lies within minutes' range (of Pyongyang's possible strikes), ballistic missile threats are a matter of life or death," Park said during a joint press conference following a summit with her Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok on Saturday.

This photo, taken on Sept. 3, 2016, shows President Park Geun-hye (L) speaking during a joint press conference following her summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Russia's Far East port city of Vladivostok. (Yonhap)

"A responsible government cannot help but craft a way to safeguard the safety of the nation and the lives of its people," she added, saying that Seoul and Moscow agreed to strengthen "strategic communication" over Pyongyang's nuclear conundrum.

Without mentioning the THAAD issue, Putin made it clear that Moscow cannot accept the North's "self-proclaimed" status as a nuclear power.

Putin has been focused on economic cooperation with South Korea in the development of Russia's Far East region. In that vein, his remarks helped ease Seoul's concerns that Moscow's opposition to THAAD would weaken its will to pressure Pyongyang into renouncing its nuclear ambitions.

"Putin did not publicly raise the THAAD issue after the summit, which signals that Moscow may not take serious issue with THAAD in the future," said Park Won-gon, an international relations professor at Hangdong Global University.

The scholar also noted that during her summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Park created fresh momentum to narrow differences with Beijing over THAAD by proposing a trilateral dialogue involving Seoul, Washington and Beijing. The Park-Xi summit was held on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meeting in the eastern Chinese city on Monday.

This photo, taken on Sept. 5, 2016, shows President Park Geun-hye (L) shaking hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before their summit on the sidelines of the gathering of the Group of 20 leading economies in Hangzhou, eastern China. (Yonhap)

"Park moved to bring China into the three-way dialogue platform to discuss the THAAD issue, which I think will offer much-needed momentum to bridge gaps over the security issue," the professor said.

Park’s argument that the need for THAAD will “naturally” dissipate once Pyongyang’s escalating nuclear and missile threats are eliminated also helped China to understand the deployment plan, analysts said.

During the summit, Xi renewed his opposition to THAAD, but reaffirmed Beijing's "firm" stance in favor of the peninsula’s denuclearization and peace and stability in the region, Kim Kyou-hyu, senior presidential secretary for foreign affairs, said.

Above all, the greatest outcome of Park's summit diplomacy was a stern, unmistakable message against Pyongyang's unceasing provocations that she helped elicit from the leaders of the four major powers, observers said.

During the trip, Park opened a barrage of warnings against Pyongyang, stressing that the continuation of reckless provocations will lead the reclusive state down the "path of self-destruction."

Following his summit with Park on Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama warned that the North's provocations will only invite more pressure and further deepen its isolation. He also stressed that Washington's commitment to the defense of the South is "unwavering."

This composite photo shows South Korean President Park Geun-hye (R) and her U.S. counterpart Barack Obama speaking to reporters as they close their talks on the sidelines of ASEAN-related summits in the Laotian capital of Vientiane on Sept. 6, 2016. (Yonhap)

Obama, in addition, emphasized Washington's pledge to provide extended deterrence to South Korea in an apparent move to allay mounting security concerns among South Koreans over the North's growing military threats.

What is likely to be the last meeting between Park and Obama took place on the sidelines of multiple summits with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Vientiane. Obama will leave office in January next year.

Wednesday's summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe capped Park's diplomacy with the major powers. At the summit, Abe called Pyongyang's missile provocations "indescribable violence" and agreed to strengthen trilateral security cooperation with South Korea and the U.S.

This photo, taken on Sept. 7, 2016, shows President Park Geun-hye holding a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of ASEAN-related summits in the Laotian capital of Vientiane. (Yonhap)

Park's trip, however, fell short of finding a "fundamental" solution to the prolonged standoff, Park from Handong Global University said.

"Before her trip began, there were hopes that she could find some sort of breakthrough in the nuclear stalemate with Pyongyang," the professor said. "But there were no proposals of creative ways to solve the issue or of solutions for a compromise."

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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