SEOUL — President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Asia may be attracting the most attention in a country that isn’t on his probable itinerary – South Korea.
While the schedule for the April trip has not been formally announced, he is widely expected to visit Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines. Bypassing Seoul would be viewed here as a diplomatic snub to Korea and a sign that the U.S. places greater value on its relationship with Tokyo.
The apparent omission has not gone unnoticed here, particularly as tensions have escalated with Tokyo in recent months over historical grievances between the two key U.S. allies. Local media have framed whether Obama meets in Seoul with President Park Geun-hye as a question of U.S. commitment to the country in the face of a rising China and a militarily resurgent Japan.
South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Wednesday it is “communicating closely with the U.S. side” about Obama’s trip. An invitation was extended last spring when Park visited Washington.
The U.S. and South Korea face a number of contentious issues, including how much South Korea contributes toward the upkeep of the large U.S. troop presences on the peninsula. The two countries agreed last month that Seoul will increase its contributions, but the deal could still face opposition this spring when it goes to the National Assembly for ratification.
Seoul has also sought a delay in next year’s scheduled handover of wartime operational control of allied forces on the peninsula because of concerns about the threat posed by North Korea.
A no-show by Obama would be an embarrassment for Park and could undermine support for a leader friendly to the U.S. administration.
It could also lead to South Korea aligning itself with an increasingly assertive Beijing, despite concerns over China’s disputed territorial claims in the region and military expansionism.
“The public thinks we could do worse than cooperating with China,” said Cho Sei Young, a professor of international relations at Dongseo University in Busan.
In a recent Washington Post column, three prominent analysts urged the president to include Seoul in his Asia trip, saying military issues — including OPCON transfer — make a presidential stopover imperative and that “a trip without South Korea would send the wrong message.”
North Korea could conduct another provocation — possibly a nuclear test — by the time of Obama’s trip, according to Richard Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state and president of Armitage International, and Victor Cha and Michael Green, both of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and formerly on the National Security Council.
“Whatever the provocation, the United States would need to demonstrate solidarity with Seoul and galvanize regional pressure to deter further escalation by Pyongyang,” their column said.
Stars and Stripes’ Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this story.