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Getting the Timing Right for an Inter-Korean Summit


By Troy Stangarone

What should drive a summit meeting between the leaders of a divided nation such as Korea? The chance to heal an historical divide? The need to ease tensions and open dialogue between the two sides? The ability to move concrete policy goals forward in an effort to build a joint future? These and other considerations are all legitimate reasons to meet with the opposing leader of a divided state. However, as recent events between China and Taiwan demonstrate, the conditions and circumstances of a meeting matter as well.

To the surprise of many, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and Chinese President Xi Jinping made history this weekend in Singapore with the first meeting between the leaders of the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China since Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang fled the mainland for Taiwan in 1949. The meeting, confirmed only days beforehand was much smaller in scale than previous inter-Korean summits and more symbolic in nature.

However, while the meeting may be an historic first, the timing as much as the meeting’s lack of substance is likely to diminish its impact on long-term relations between China and Taiwan. Coming with the campaign for the presidential and Legislative Yuan elections on January 16 already underway, the meeting has been criticized by the opposition, which is currently leading in the polls, as an attempt to turn around the flailing Kuomintang’s fortunes. Some have also suggested the meeting was an attempt to fence in the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen’s policy on cross-strait relations should she win the presidency.

The Ma-Xi meeting reinforces some of the lessons from the 2007 meeting between then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il. The Roh-Kim summit was held four months prior to the South Korean presidential election, one which the opposition Grand National Party’s candidate, Lee Myung-bak, was leading at the time. Much as with the Ma-Xi summit, concerns were expressed that one of the factors in the decision to hold the summit was to influence the outcome of upcoming elections.

In addition, the Roh-Kim summit, in contrast to the Ma-Xi summit, produced a series of agreements for economic and security cooperation between the two Koreas. However, after his election, Lee Myung-bak chose to put forward his own proposals for engagement with North Korea and set aside the agreement reached between President Roh and Kim Jong-il.

As the Ma-Xi summit and the Roh-Kim summit demonstrate, timing matters. Ideally, any future inter-Korean summit would take place early in the term of a new president. This would allow any inter-Korean agreement to be implemented by both sides and, if successful, build on that progress. However, given North Korea’s propensity to test new South Korean leaders, an inter-Korean summit early in a South Korean administration may be unlikely. Given that reality, any future summit would be timed to take place with sufficient time remaining in the president’s term to implement any inter-Korean agreement while avoiding election cycles.

One last consideration for future inter-Korean summits is China. Under President Park Geun-hye, South Korea has worked to improve relations with China and convince the leadership in Beijing that it should be amenable to unification on South Korean terms. At the same time, Xi Jinping has distanced himself from Kim Jong-un while meeting with Park Geun-hye on multiple occasions, including a summit meeting in South Korea. Given the historic relationship between North Korea and China, determining how a Park-Kim summit be perceived in Beijing if it occurred in advance of a Xi-Kim summit will also likely be a consideration for Seoul when exploring the optimal time for a future inter-Korean summit.

Any future inter-Korean summit should be driven by policy considerations. However, as the recent cross-strait summit and previous Roh-Kim summit demonstrate, timing is an important factor as well. A successful summit requires finding the optimal time to meet to ensure that the summit does not become an end unto itself, but rather moves the relationship forward in a constructive manner.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Masaru Kamikura’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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