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Foreign minister to lobby for UN seat, nuke talks on US trip

Feb. 1, 2023 - 15:57 By Choi Si-young
Foreign Minister Park Jin speaks to reporters before flying to the US at Incheon International Airport on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Foreign Minister Park Jin set off on a four-day tour to the United States on Wednesday to drum up support for South Korea’s bid to win a two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council while reinforcing bilateral efforts to denuclearize North Korea.

Seoul, which last served on the UN body from 2013 to 2014, is eyeing another term starting next year -- a move it sees as part of its long-term Indo-Pacific strategy to lead the international conversation on peace by discussing more than an increasingly belligerent Pyongyang. The isolated country fired off a record number of missiles last year and shows no signs of dialing back its aggression.

Shortly after meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in New York, Park will hold talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington on Friday to look for ways to bring North Korea back to nuclear dialogue, the last of which took place on October 2019 between Washington and Pyongyang. The two failed to work out their differences over the first steps to take between starting disarmament and easing sanctions.

Park, also expected to meet with senior US officials familiar with the matter, will float discussion over a trip by President Yoon Suk Yeol to the US this year to mark the 70th anniversary of their relations.

Yoon, who last year welcomed US President Joe Biden in his visit to South Korea, is committed to keeping Washington invested in Seoul’s all-out efforts to contain Pyongyang. He is the first South Korean leader to have openly backed an independent nuclear buildup, though his office walked backed on the remarks, saying he meant bolstering “US extended deterrence,” Washington’s support involving its nuclear weapons.

During a Seoul trip this week, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reaffirmed commitment to such military support, calling the pledge “ironclad” -- a clear message to South Korean skeptics united behind self-made nuclear weapons.

Still, the two allies have yet to figure out how deeply South Korea should be involved in the US decision making process when mobilizing nuclear weapons. Their defense chiefs say meetings will take place to flesh out plans.

Potential discord over establishing a united front on North Korea concerns Japan as well. The three-way military coalition comprising Seoul, Washington and Tokyo has long served as the bulwark of checks the US wants to put on North Korea, but South Korea and Japan have to clear their long-time historical dispute to make way for the kind of a tightknit military partnership Washington seeks.

Currently, South Korea and Japan are nearing a compromise deal to make amends to Koreans forced into labor by Japanese companies during World War II.

That is why speculation runs also high over the Munich Security Conference to be held in Germany two weeks later, an annual gathering of decision-makers on security policy that could potentially lead to a one-on-one meeting between Foreign Minister Park and his Japanese counterpart, Yoshimasa Hayashi.

“I’m thinking about going there and I see there could be an opportunity,” Park said of a potential meeting with Hayashi as he departed for the US on Wednesday.

It is unclear, however, whether the two top diplomats could bring closure to the decades-old dispute. The South Korean victims and their representatives have rejected the deal on the table, citing chiefly the absence of a direct apology from the Japanese firms.