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Rumors of an impending North Korean nuclear test have more than justified President Obama’s decision to add South Korea to his agenda during his trip to Asia this week. Rather than discussing security challenges, it would not be surprising if the American and South Korean leaders spend most of their time commiserating with each other over the limits and obstacles their respective governments are facing against high public expectations.
For President Park, the extended tragedy of the ferry Sewol and the loss of over 300 passengers, mostly high school students, has consumed the South Korean nation for over a week and has unleashed vituperative judgments regarding the competency of the Park administration at every level. No doubt, some of the South Korean public reaction is an expression of frustration and helplessness in the face of a senseless tragedy, but recriminations have snowballed to the extent that Park and her team are facing a crisis of leadership and a need to regain public confidence. She has even described the captain’s negligence as “tantamount to murder.” President Obama’s presence and expression of condolences in the face of South Korea’s national tragedy will help President Park, as would a willingness to endorse inter-governmental cooperation with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Authorities (FEMA) to assist South Korea in strengthening its own emergency response capabilities.
For President Obama, his trip to Asia is a welcome effort to shore up his administration’s rebalancing policy, which has been met with skepticism domestically and abroad. Media and public in Northeast Asia have increasingly expressed doubt in the U.S. policy’s sufficiency and sustainability, especially in light of America’s domestic fiscal and policy challenges. Unchecked Russian aggression in the Ukraine has further contributed to perceptions of the limits of American leadership internationally. In his swing through the region weeks in advance of President Obama’s trip, Secretary of Defense Hagel pledged two additional destroyers would be added to the U.S. Pacific Fleet by 2017, but this future augmentation feels insufficient to address the immediate anxieties regarding the staying power of the pivot or its significance in light of Russia’s land grab in the Ukraine.
The rebalance is unquestionably the president’s own initiative. But, lacking a cabinet-level point person visibly leading the policy’s execution, the promise of sustained political attention to the region that is central to the rebalance is increasingly perceived as hollow and lacking. This doubt is likely to be a take-home message the president will hear while in Asia.
Another issue hovering over Obama’s visit is the question of North Korea, where a full-blown crisis involving regime instability or nuclear proliferation could very well overwhelm the response capacities of all governments in the region. The limited capacity of the U.S. and South Korean governments to manage current crises should send a sobering wake-up call regarding the need for redoubled preparations to address a possible contingency on the peninsula. The risks are heightened by a North Korean leadership that remains unaccountable either to its own people or to the international community.