South Korea appears cautiously open to dialogue with the North

 

Seoul

The election Wednesday of Park Geun-hye as South Korea's president signals a new period of cautious — and conditional — rapprochement with North Korea, the nuclear-armed police state that Park's predecessors have utterly failed to tame.

Though North Korea policy figured little into the three-week campaign period here, with voters concerned foremost about economic issues, it is with Pyongyang where Park will find her greatest challenge, political analysts said Thursday.

Park has said she'll 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, whose treated the North as an adversary.

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

Park has stressed that she'll use "robust deterrence" to counter the North Korean military threat. But she says she's also open to meeting with 29-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong Eun, "if it helps in moving forward North-South relations."

Such inter-Korean political meetings, even among lower-level officials, never happened under Lee, according to statistics from South Korea's Ministry of Unification. But there were 35 such meetings in the five years under Roh.

In Washington, the North is often described as a near-impossible diplomatic target. But in the South, the stakes of division are more personal. Elderly families divided by the Korean War no longer have reunions sponsored jointly by the two governments; they can't even send mail to one another.

Park's mother was assassinated 38 years ago in a North Korean-led attack that missed its real target, Park's father — then-President Park Chung-hee.

"National partition is a sorrow that touches all Koreans," Park said in a speech before the election, "but for me it is brought to the fore by unimaginable personal suffering."

Three in five Koreans, according to a recent government poll, believe Lee Myung-bak took too hard a line against the North during his soon-to-end five-year term. He yanked away 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 ties with China and continued with its nuclear tests and long-range rocket launches, the latest coming earlier this month. Lee maintained close ties during his tenure with President Barack Obama, traveling to the United States seven times. But he exits at a time when Washington is facing growing criticism for its inability to engage with and influence the North.

"That's why I personally believe that there probably is space for Park to carve out her own initial interaction" with the North, said Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Really it's about South Korea taking the lead on inter-Korean relations at a time when there is, politically, no space for pursuing that option in Washington. So in a way it's very convenient for the Obama Administration to let that play out."

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'll resume political dialogue and provide some sort of humanitarian aid. She'll also 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 the North vows will never happen. In the official seven-page document where Park lays out her North Korea strategy, which she calls "Trustpolitik," Park says she's open to helping the North build up its roadways and its electricity infrastructure. She all mentions the possibility of cooperating in special economic zones and helping the North attract foreign investment. But all this is "pursuant to progress in denuclearization," the document says.

"I think Park is in a bind," said Robert Kelly, professor of political science at Pusan National University, in Busan, South Korea. "You've got this public opinion that thinks Lee Myung-bak was too hawkish. But within her party, and within the national security bureaucracy, you've still got a really strong contingent that sees North Korea as this old Communist foe. So she's got to sort of walk through the raindrops. I don't know if she can do it."

Since Park's victory, North Korea's state news agency has said nothing about the incoming leader. But before the election, the North described Park's conservative party as "confrontation maniacs."

"Furthermore," the North said, "Park's logic of 'scrapping nuclear program first' is not different from Lee Myung Bak's [policy], but just an extension of it."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas