Park Geun-hye’s recent contribution to Foreign Affairs (available to subscribers only) is getting some attention, as it suggests that the GNP is much more catholic in its views of North Korea than is often thought. A brief synopsis:
Park argues that precisely because trust is low, there is opportunity to rebuild it through a new “trustpolitik.” Her first cut at this concept replays old themes: North Korea must abide by its commitments and there can be no tolerance for provocations. She even takes a swipe at the current administration by suggesting that the South can “no longer tolerate” North Korea’s provocations, suggesting that it has in fact tolerated them. Moreover, Park makes clear that a new GNP government would not simply close its eyes to the nuclear issue: “under no circumstances can South Korea accept the existence of a nuclear-armed North Korea.”
But the short piece takes a left turn when it notes that while engagement under Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun didn’t work, “the governments in Seoul that have placed a greater emphasis on pressuring North Korea have not been able to influence its behavior in a meaningful way, either.” While the plural of “governments” could be taken as an oblique reference to Kim Young Sam’s surprising intransigence, there can be little doubt that the target of the piece is the Lee Myung Bak approach.
Misleadingly, Park calls her new approach an “alignment” strategy, but the analytic guts of it is classic tit-for-tat strategy. Respond forcefully to provocation, but “if North Korea takes steps toward genuine reconciliation, such as reaffirming its commitment to existing agreements, then the South should match its efforts.”
So what is the trust-building side of the coin? None other than economic engagement: “joint projects for enhanced economic cooperation, humanitarian assistance from the South to the North, and new trade and investment opportunities.” Her example? Reconnecting the North-South rail links, including not only the Potemkin rail lines now in place but linking through to China and Russia. Park explicitly mentions the OSCE model, augmented by multilateral economic support for the North (a topic on which we have written at some length). Further steps might include North-South special economic zones and the free movement of goods and people—a pretty bold idea—and development assistance from institutions such as the World Bank as well as foreign investment.
Like everyone else, Park has hopes that China will play a constructive role, but with an interesting twist: she notes that the level of cooperation between the US and China is an important determinant of North Korean leverage. When the US and China are in cooperation mode, North Korea is more of an irritant to Beijing than when China and the US are at loggerheads.
Park closes by drawing on South Korea’s own experience, noting that it too traversed a path from poor developing country. However, she does not give up on the hope of unification, nor does she fudge its ultimate terms: “a democratic, unified Korea would be an economic and security asset to the region.”
Grand designs tend to founder on the fact that North Korea rarely misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity; the outset of the Obama administration is the most recent example. Nonetheless, the GNP must have some doubts about the electoral utility of the current strategy; Lee Myung Bak’s recent liberation day speech suggests the beginnings of a gradual exit from the hardline.
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