South Korean President Park Geun-hye (R) with Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheong. EPA/YONHAP SOUTH KOREA OUT
Opinion writer

When South Korean President Park Geun-hye visited Washington two years ago, she spoke of “Asia’s paradox” — a disconnect between the region’s growing economic cooperation and its deep political and security tensions.

This dissonance is still evident as Park prepares for another visit to Washington, on June 16, especially in the stand-off between South Korea and Japan over historical issues. Seoul argues that Tokyo hasn’t taken sufficient responsibility for what Koreans say was the “sexual slavery” of their so-called “comfort women.” The dispute poisons relations between two countries that otherwise share similar strategic, economic and cultural interests.

Welcome to the balancing act that is at the center of U.S. leadership in Asia. The definition of good policy is maintaining strong relations simultaneously with Japan, South Korea and China — and encouraging those countries to cooperate with each other, too. It’s a tricky quadrilateral process that depends on strong U.S. alliance management and ability to project military power.

A sign of this complex interdependence came this week, as South Korea signed a free-trade agreement with China, on the eve of Park’s visit when she will discuss Seoul’s simultaneous desire to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “The fulcrum issue in Asia is the role of South Korea,” contends Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of state for Asia. He says the United States should welcome friendly relations between Seoul and Beijing, even as it strengthens its own trade and defense cooperation with South Korea.

Park’s trip will be the second installment of this “season of Asia” in Washington. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a successful visit in April, and Chinese President Xi Jinping will arrive in September. The visits illustrate the “huge demand signal for U.S. leadership in the region,” says Tom Donilon, who as national security adviser for President Obama helped frame the famous (if still unfulfilled) “pivot to Asia” in 2011.

Even the Chinese seem to accept the primacy of U.S. power, so long as China can help set the rules. Explains a senior Chinese diplomat: “China can’t play the U.S. role. The key is in your hands.”

Intensive back-channel negotiations have been taking place to reduce friction between Tokyo and Seoul. The goal is a Japanese statement and Korean response to clear the air before Park’s arrival in Washington, or at least by June 22, which is the 50th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-South Korea postwar relations.

What would it take to make the past less toxic? U.S. and South Korean officials envision a similar process. Japan would offer a new statement of contrition about the comfort women, going beyond Abe’s expression of remorse for “human trafficking,” which he made in an interview with me in Tokyo in March and repeated in the United States. U.S. officials thought the phrase avoided the issue of who did the “trafficking.” Officials speculate that Abe might make a personal gesture, such as writing a letter to comfort women. In return, Japan would get assurance that this issue won’t be “relitigated” endlessly.

“I believe efforts have been made to make progress, but [they have] not yet produced the final result,” said a senior Japanese official. A South Korean official agrees that “progress is being made, but we are not there yet.” He explains: “History issues are a serious challenge for now, but that doesn’t stop us from developing relationships [with Japan] at other levels.”

The most urgent security worry for all the major northeast Asian players is the unstable political situation in North Korea under its mercurial leader, Kim Jong Un. The latest sign of turmoil there was the execution reported last month of Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol, who some U.S. experts believe was suspected of being part of a potential coup. But he was just the most visible target: South Korea estimates that during the first quarter of this year, 70 North Korean officials were executed for suspected disloyalty.

The North Korean situation is described the same way — as “unsustainable” — by U.S., Chinese, Japanese and South Korean experts. China may have special worries about the volatile Kim. Two years ago, the young leader executed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was said to have been a favorite of Beijing. China now shelters Kim Jong Nam, the ruler’s calmer older brother, who lives in Macau under increased Chinese security protection.

As Obama prepares to welcome Park, you can think of U.S. Asia policy as a juggler’s trick of keeping three spinning plates aloft. The United States succeeds if it can sustain the momentum to keep all three whirling together.

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