“Trustpolitik” and “alignment”: Assessing Park Geun-hye’s new approach to North Korea, by Christoph Bluth


Prof. Christoph Bluth

[Dr. Christoph Bluth, Professor of International Studies at the University of Leeds, UK, sent CanKor his commentary on an article published in the journal Foreign Affairs by Park Geun-hye, the frontrunning candidate for South Korea’s ruling Grand National Party in the coming elections. Professor Bluth is author of “Crisis on the Korean Peninsula” published by Potomac Press 2011.–CanKor.]

For a long time Park Geun-hye has been at the forefront of South Korean politics. As she is preparing for the forthcoming presidential election, the frontrunner from the conservative Grand National Party has decided to formally lay out her vision for the future of the Korean peninsula and her plan of how to deal with North Korea in an article published in the September issue of the American journal Foreign Affairs. Her analysis of the situation is stark and she pulls no punches about North Korea’s aggressive behaviour in the past. At the same time she puts forward a bold plan to address the situation by embarking on a process building trust among the states of the Northeast Asian regions, involving slowing the growth of military build-ups and greater economic cooperation.

Coining the new phrase “trustpolitik”, she outlines a new mechanism to bring “Pyongyang into the fold”. Park considers that the efforts to engage North Korea by means of a “sunshine policy” have failed to mitigate North Korea’s aggressive behaviour. By way of an indirect criticism of the incumbent President Lee Myung-bak, she states that the policies of conditional engagement and deterrence have likewise failed to modify North Korea’s “bellicose strategy towards the South” in a meaningful way.

This is putting it mildly. The strategy of conditional engagement that involved the promise of very significant levels of economic support in return for North Korean “good behaviour” and in particular a resolution of the nuclear issue has been an abject failure. It set in motion a marked deterioration in North-South relations culminating in two serious military provocations in 2010 (the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan) and the shelling of the island of Yeongpyeong). The Lee government responded to the Cheonan incident by cutting off all diplomatic and economic relations with the North (except for the Gaesong industrial complex). The situation on the Korean peninsula entered a very critical phase as the Seoul government indicated its intention to respond to future military provocations with significant military strikes against the North. A new policy towards North Korea is desperately needed.

In its place National Assembly Representative Park proposes an “alignment policy” that combines toughness with flexibility in inner-Korean relations, which should be designed to build trust in alignment with international efforts to strengthen security and cooperation. Alongside a vigorous posture of deterrence against North Korean provocations, South Korea should offer Pyongyang a new beginning, with joint projects of enhanced co-operation, humanitarian assistance and new trade and investment opportunities.

The article taps into a new trend of thought in international relations scholarship on trust-building and constitutes an analysis of extraordinary depth, scope and imagination. Having said that, it also needs to be acknowledged that this proposal embodies a fundamental misconception about the nature of the North Korean regime. Trust can only be built if there is some commonality of norms and values. North Korean leaders only respect power, and have absolutely no respect for norms or values.

Moreover, they believe that others act in precisely the same way that they do. From their perspective, international law and institutions have no merit in themselves, but are just used as instruments of power to achieve certain objectives. For example, the notion that North Korea should have permitted intrusive IAEA inspections merely because the DPRK acceded to the NPT was incomprehensible to North Korean leaders; they see the IAEA just as an instrument of US policy. Efforts to negotiate and enforce agreements once they have been reached are just part of a continuous power play, in which North Korea seeks to extract the maximum advantage at every turn. For North Korea, the use or the threat of the use of force is a perfectly normal tool of diplomacy, while most other countries have abandoned it in all but the most extreme circumstances.

Park proposes to develop a collective security regime in Asia along the lines of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that would integrate North Korea into the region through security assurances and economic relations. This is a very common theme in the South Korean academic literature. The institutionalist approach posits that when states are bound into institutions, then their perception of their national interest changes as the institutions mitigates the security dilemma and the benefits of membership outweigh the gains that can be achieved through the maximisation of power.

Whatever the merits of this concept, history teaches us that this simply will not work in the case of North Korea. This is because the North Korean leaders never adopt and internalize the principles and values underlying any institution that the DPRK becomes a member of. Small violations in any agreement are used as an excuse to defect as soon as the North Koreans believe that the agreement no longer suits their purposes or that a better deal could be had.

Indeed, the North Koreans have abandoned every international agreement that they ever signed. Attempts to link the various dimensions of relations with North Korea (such as removal of sanctions and aid to disarmament) have also proven unsuccessful. Even while an agreement is still in force, the leaders in Pyongyang will honor those provisions that are important to them and ignore others which are too insignificant or intangible to bring about a collapse of the agreement as a whole.

The general concept of engaging North Korea was that the international community would underwrite North Korea economically and normalise relations in return for the abandonment of weapons of mass destruction. However these efforts were based on faulty premises. The problem is that a resolution of the nuclear issue does not solve the underlying problem. The North Korean regime will continue to remain unacceptable to the United States and most of the international community, including South Korea. We cannot build trust with a regime as long as it continues to engage in human rights violations on an enormous scale. No matter what agreements are signed, the outside world will seek gradual regime change.

On the other hand, the North Korean state is not viable politically, socially and economically. Its rulers reject internal reform, refuse to open the country up to the world and conduct its foreign policy on the basis of threats. Its projection of the external threat is a major element of its internal legitimation. This leaves the North Korean leadership with the dilemma that it needs to improve its relations with the outside world and especially the United States in order to mitigate the external threat and obtain the economic support it needs, while at the same time any such improvement undermines the regime and questions its very existence. Thus an unending cycle of confrontation and accommodation is inevitable while this regime endures.

The inconvenient truth is that there is no solution to the North Korean problem. The best we can hope for is that the situation on the Korean peninsula is properly managed. In defence of Representative Park, no politician can ever say that on an issue of such central national importance. Moreover, it is necessary to engage with North Korea in order to mitigate tension and prevent the outbreak of war. From this perspective, the proposals offered by Park Geun-hye represent a bold step forward. Nevertheless we need to be realistic about what can ultimately be achieved.

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