|Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha poses with her U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo during a bilateral meeting in California, in this January photo. She plans to visit the U.S. to meet him in the near future. / Korea Times file|
By Kang Seung-woo
Korea is stepping up efforts to ease growing concerns over its diplomatic isolation by the United States, with its top diplomat planning to fly to Washington, D.C., soon.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced, Thursday, that Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has accepted U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo's invitation to the U.S. for ministerial talks in the near future. Although the two sides are still in negotiations over the schedule, it is widely expected that they will meet after the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.
The announcement came hours after the U.S. State Department said Pompeo will travel to India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia later this month, instead of visiting Korea. When he canceled his trip to Korea earlier this month due to U.S. President Donald Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis, his office said it would reschedule the visit later in October.
The exclusion of Korea from Pompeo's itinerary is once again raising concerns that Washington is bypassing Seoul and making important decisions on North Korea on its own ― although the foreign ministry has denied such speculation.
Such concerns have also come amid a situation where Korea has been reluctant to join the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at containing China, despite repeated calls from its largest ally, because a stand against Beijing would come at a large cost given that it is Seoul's biggest trading partner.
"The Korean government is not cooperating with the U.S.-led anti-China campaign, so the U.S. may think it would be a waste of time for Pompeo to visit Korea," said Shin Beom-chul, a director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.
Shin said Kang's visit is a kind of preventive measure to prevent the U.S. from bypassing Korea if Trump is reelected.
"It remains to be seen whether Kang's U.S. trip will go ahead as planned, depending on the results of the U.S. presidential election. However, in the event of a Trump reelection, Kang needs to meet Pompeo to discuss relevant issues to prevent Korea from being bypassed."
Shin added that Trump's reelection will mean more pressure on Korea to participate in the U.S.-led anti-China coalition, including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a strategic forum established in 2007 to contain China. The Quad is comprised of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S., and Washington wants to develop it into an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by inviting Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam to a so-called Quad Plus.
Along with the anti-China alliance, Kang may discuss with Pompeo the stalled defense cost-sharing talks. The two nations have yet to finalize the cost-sharing negotiations for the presence of the United States Forces Korea after over a year due to Trump's demand for a 50 percent increase in the South's share from last year, or $1.3 billion (1.47 trillion won). Korea is maintaining its proposal of a 13 percent increase from the previous cost-sharing accord of $860 million.
However, the dominant opinion here is if Trump is reelected, the Korean government would have to meet the U.S. president's request to some extent as part of a "reelection gift."