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Hither and Yon

Asian summitry roars to a climax: With so much talk, what could go wrong?

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, EastAsiaIntel.com
It’s the season for summits with heavy overtones for Northeast Asia. After President Park Geun-Hye met President Barack Obama in Washington and President Xi Jinping in Beijing, after Xi met Obama in Washington, after President Putin saw Obama at the United Nations and Xi in Beijing, after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called on Obama in Washington, what more could they say?
We should know quite soon. The race for the final word in regional summitry this year climaxes this weekend when the leaders of the three Northeast Asian powers, so often at odds with one another, descend upon Seoul for summit after summit after summit.
Actually, it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say all three of these people are really the “leaders” of their countries. Certainly Park is the leader of the Republic of Korea, and no one doubts that Abe leads Japan. But then, what about Chinese Premier Li Keqiang? Nice title, but he’s not exactly his country’s leader. Everyone knows, at the apex of the Chinese hierarchy, President Xi reigns supreme.
Li is coming to Seoul as a stand-in for Xi, who probably thinks he’s gone far enough to rein in obstreperous North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un by having Park as one of two VIP guests, along with Putin, at last month’s shindig in Beijing marking the 70th anniversary of the surrender of Japanese troops and the end of Japanese imperialism in China.
Still, as premier, Li is entitled to be called China’s leader if that’s all right with Xi. In that capacity he’s arriving in Seoul on Saturday for the first of the weekend’s summits. His meeting with Park will be all sweetness and light. She’s not going to debate Li on whether China is entitled to claim almost all the South China Sea as a vast Chinese lake. Nor is she going to utter a word of criticism about China’s claim to the Senkaku Islands, Diaoyu to the Chinese, to which Japan clings tenaciously in the East China Sea.
With those topics more or less off the table, if not taboo, all the two really have to talk about is the need to persuade North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un that he simply cannot afford to conduct a fourth nuclear test. “Afford” may be the operative word here. If the kid risks upsetting all his neighbors, not to mention the U.S. and everyone else, by testing a nuclear “device,” he’s got to know that China will slow the flow of oil, all of which North Korea imports, and may undermine a slew of other deals. Shouldn’t that be easy considering that North Korea relies on China for well over 90 percent of its foreign trade? Wait and see.
The conversation between Park and Li will lead up to the centerpiece of two days of pomp and palaver ― that is, the “trilateral” summit at which Abe will join the festivities. That conversation should be really interesting. We won’t get to see the transcript, but we can imagine the subtle and not-so-subtle thrusts and jabs as Li and Park think of ways to remind Abe of Japan’s history as an imperial, colonial power, first subjugating people and then cruelly slaughtering them as in the rape of Nanking in which Japanese troops murdered tens of thousands of Chinese in December 1937. That was four years before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered the war ― and the Japanese inflicted their worst cruelties on the Chinese, who suffered 15-20 million killed, second only to the 27 million mowed down in the Soviet Union in World War II.
But wait a moment. These three potentates aren’t gathering just to talk about historical wrongs. Isn’t the overriding point of the meeting to discuss North Korea? Won’t they be talking about holding Kim Jong-Un in check, bringing North Korea into the community of nations, maybe “normalizing” North Korean relations with Japan and opening up to South Korea for more than occasional reunions of war-divided families and carefully monitored factories in the Gaeseong Industrial Complex?
Nope, we’re not likely to see real agreements, but the three may advance ideas and theories that will show they’re trying to get somewhere in breaking the impasse between North Korea and everyone else. Kim Jong-un will no doubt be watching and listening from afar, but how will he respond? Probably not at all, not right away. Maybe we’ll know by counting the number of missile tests and North-South visits in the coming months.
The third and final summit of the weekend may be the most portentous – that’s on Monday when Park chats with Abe “on the sidelines,” as they say. Abe cannot satisfy the Koreans with double-talk and carefully constructed expressions of sorrow. Park may kowtow before the Chinese but has to appear pragmatic with Abe. The need to get along is real as Japan and South Korea confront North Korea.
Or doesn’t Park know she can’t count on China if North Korea explodes or implodes or erupts in some form of chaos?
Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.
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