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."