South Korea’s new trustpolitik with North Korea

After a tight race, South Korean voters last week picked Park Geun-hye of the establishment Saenuri Party as their next President.

Park’s foremost challenge when she takes office in February will be North Korea. The outgoing government of President Lee Myung-bak, a no-nonsense former corporate CEO, reversed 10 years of so-called sunshine policy — a conciliatory approach to Pyongyang that saw two summits, the South’s investments in the North and reunions of family members separated by the Korean War. Lee adopted a stern approach, cutting off dialogue and humanitarian aid over Pyongyang’s unwillingness to drop its nuclear-weapons program.

When Pyongyang shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, Lee ordered the South Korean military to prepare for retaliatory strikes on the North’s missile bases in the event of further provocation. He also canceled inter-Korean Red Cross talks that were scheduled to occur two days after the shelling.

This past year, Pyongyang’s failed long-range rocket launch in April and a successful launch earlier this month further strained relations between the two Koreas. “There’s a sense that something has to give,” says Hahm Chai-bong, head of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Park looks as if she will be doing the giving. Despite Pyongyang’s persistent recalcitrance, Park believes that improving bilateral relations will help persuade North Korea to curtail its nuclear program as well as set the two Koreas on a path of reunification — the “100% completion of Korea,” as she has termed it. Her confidence-building measures — she calls them “trustpolitik” — include the renewal of humanitarian aid to the North and re-establishing social and cultural exchanges.

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Cautious South Korea appears open to dialogue with North

Emerging from victory, Park Geun-hye who will become the next, and the first woman, president of South Korea. Concerning North Korea, Park has said she will try to find a middle ground between the two much-criticized approaches of previous presidents — Roh Moo-hyun, who showered North Korea with unconditional aid, and the outgoing Lee Myung-bak, who treated the North as an adversary.

Pyongyang managed to exploit both approaches, continuing with its weapons program — and conducting its first nuclear test — during a long period of South-led engagement, and later turning more violent, launching two fatal attacks on the South, when that engagement was yanked away.

Park has stressed that she will use “robust deterrence” to counter the North Korean military threat. But she says she is also open to meeting with 29-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, “if it helps in moving forward North-South relations.”

Three in five Koreans, according to a recent government poll, believe that Lee took too hard a line against the North during his soon-to-end five-year term. He ended almost all humanitarian aid and economic projects, saying everything would be restored if the North gave up its weapons. He also talked often about the “inevitability” of unification, hinting that the North was unstable and soon to collapse.

Lee had hoped his stance would pressure the North, turning it desperate and compliant. Instead, the North drastically increased its ties with China and continued with its nuclear tests and long-range rocket launches, the latest coming earlier this month.

Park’s approach is more dovish than Lee’s but still much more stern than the “Sunshine Policy” — introduced by Kim Dae-jung in 1998 and continued by Roh — that liberal candidate Moon Jae-in promised to reinstate. No matter the North’s behavior, Park says, she will resume political dialogue and provide some sort of humanitarian aid. She also plans to restore some small-scale economic projects and cultural exchanges, although she has stayed vague about specifics.

But for the South to provide anything more significant, Park says, the North must begin to dismantle its nuclear weapons — something it has vowed will never happen.

North Korea policy of new South Korean President Park Geun-hye

Conservative candidate Park Geun-hye,  the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee, claimed victory Wednesday in South Korea’s presidential election, a result that will make her the country’s first woman president. Park will assume office in February 2013, in a country grappling with income inequality, angst over education and employment prospects for its youth, and strained relations with North Korea.

Polls showed that North-South relations ranked fifth in the most salient issues to the Korean public, falling far behind job creation, economic issues and education.

Less than 10% prioritized relations with Pyongyang, according to polls. “Threat perception overall toward North Korea has somewhat waned,” said Jong Kun Choi, an associate professor of political sciences and international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.

After the announcement of North Korea’s missile launch, about half of the respondents in a poll said they expected the rocket to have no effect in the election. “It used to be the case that a major blow from North Korea would critically affect South Korea’s election. However, this may not have a major impact as it used to be, because first of all, we are so used to it,” Choi said.

Steve Chung, who has examined the North Korean factor in South Korean presidential elections in the last two decades, said he observed that the regime is “less and less important” in this election compared with previous ones. “This year, the inter-Korea atmosphere is not as strong,” said Chung, a PhD candidate in the department of Korean studies at the university of Sydney.

South Koreans have become used to provocation from their neighbor, said Choi. “It’s been going on for the last 20 years, despite so many sporadic skirmishes, virtually nothing has happened,” he said.

Park’s policy of engaging with North Korea may not differ much from Lee’s, said Christopher Green, manager of international affairs for DailyNK, which covers North Korea. Even if Seoul was to implement a policy of unrestricted aid for North Korea, there is little guarantee that the regime would respond.

 

South Korea’s Park pledges engagement with Pyongyang

South Korea’s presidential frontrunner Park Geun-hye proposed on Monday to open liaison offices in the capitals of the rival Koreas in a sweeping policy statement that aimed to revive ties between the two countries.

Park, who is seeking to become the country’s first woman president, said she was willing to meet North Korea’s leader but said Pyongyang must renew its commitment to end its nuclear programme. Park, who is the daughter of assassinated leader Park Chung-hee, leads her two major liberal opponents by double digits in a race for a December 19 vote to pick South Korea’s president for a single five-year term.

Park’s call for a more accommodative policy toward the North is aimed at distancing herself from President Lee Myung-bak’s hardline position. Offering a different policy approach to Lee, Park also said she would separate the humanitarian crisis in North Korea from politics. Lee, who cut off aid to the North when he took power in 2008, has linked a resumption of food aid to a political thaw.

“For continued and systematic development of South-North economic cooperation and social and cultural exchange, I will establish South-North exchange and cooperation offices in Seoul and Pyongyang,” Park told a news conference. Park called for a confidence building process as a way to normalize ties between the two Koreas, adding it should begin with the two sides reaffirming existing agreements.