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[Editorial] NATO summit

President Yoon to make his debut on diplomatic stage amid China dispute

President Yoon Suk-yeol departed Seoul on Monday to participate in the upcoming NATO summit scheduled from Tuesday to Thursday in Madrid, amid a mix of hopes for and concerns about Korea’s diplomatic relations.

It is hoped that Yoon will not only make his in-person debut on the multilateral stage through 14 meetings during the summit, but also explore ways to improve South Korea’s relations with other nations at a critical juncture related to the war in Ukraine.

The trip marks the first-ever participation of a South Korean president in the NATO summit, and also Yoon’s first overseas trip since he took office in May.

At the same time, there is worry that Yoon’s role might be limited to some extent, as the much-anticipated bilateral summit with his Japanese counterpart did not materialize, and China’s hostile stance regarding South Korea’s participation in the NATO meeting may herald a new round of conflicts ahead.

One of the highlight events during Yoon’s schedule is the gathering of the three leaders from South Korea, the United States and Japan on the sidelines of the NATO summit, according to the presidential office. The meeting where Yoon, US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are expected to discuss the growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea is indeed meaningful, as it is the first such meeting in almost five years.

It is also notable that South Korea has been invited along with three Asia-Pacific countries -- Australia, Japan and New Zealand -- to the NATO summit for the first time as partners.

Given the increasingly expanding sphere of security issues, especially following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO is seen to be broadening its priorities beyond Europe to the Asia-Pacific region by inviting the four nations as guests. But it is not clear how NATO will take follow-up steps, particularly regarding South Korea and Japan, which have imposed sanctions on Russia over the war in Ukraine.

During the summit, NATO leaders are set to discuss the thorny issue of China, which is rapidly moving closer to Russia in a way that heightens security concerns, both in Europe and Asia. But this background is the reason why Yoon should tread cautiously, by clearly defining the purpose of his visit and its diplomatic implications.

As expected, China expressed displeasure toward the four Asia-Pacific countries’ participation in the summit, claiming unconvincingly that the Asia-Pacific is “beyond the geographic scope of the North Atlantic.” China itself is attempting to expand its influence beyond Asia into Europe and elsewhere. And it is no secret that NATO leaders view China as a security threat, as demonstrated by their concern over China’s 5G mobile network technologies.

Wang Wenbin, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said, “Countries and people in the Asia-Pacific are strongly opposed to anything said or done to extend the military bloc to this region or to stir up division and confrontation.” However, the countries China mentions do not include South Korea or Japan, as well as many -- if not most -- Asian countries mindful of China’s highly confrontational and divisive moves in the region.

Aside from China’s self-contradictory stance, Yoon should make it clear to other NATO leaders that South Korea is not joining the summit in order to move toward the creation of an “Asian version of NATO.” On Thursday, John Kirby, US National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, said: “This isn’t about an Asian version of NATO,” in response to China’s opposition.

While trying to remove any ground for false interpretation by China, Yoon is also urged to find ways to improve relations with Japan, despite the absence of a bilateral meeting. For all potential obstacles, it is hoped that Yoon’s participation in the NATO summit will bring positive news for the country going forward.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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