[CanKor Brain Trust member Aidan Foster-Carter reviews North-South Korea relations over the past year and prospects for the coming year in this article written for Comparative Connections, a Triannual E-Journal on East Asian Bilateral Relations published by CSIS, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, dated 14 January 2013. The first two sections of this 10-page article are reproduced here. For the remaining sections, whose sub-titles we add below, plus a chronology of North-South relations over the past two months, please follow the link to the complete article on the CSIS website. –CanKor]
South Korea-North Korea Relations 2012-2013
Writing as a new year begins it seems apt to look forward as much as back. If the past four months saw little movement on inter-Korean relations, it is hardly surprising. South Korea’s current president (since 2008), Lee Myung-bak, is detested by the North – but he is on the way out. Formally, Lee’s term of office ends on Feb. 25, but the way the electoral cycle works in Seoul – presidents are allowed only a single five-year stint – has rendered him a lame duck for the past year, as attention shifted to the hard-fought race to succeed him. In that contest, despite deep overall ideological rivalries, the one certainty was that Seoul’s policy towards Pyongyang will change going forward. Both major candidates, as well as the independent progressive Ahn Cheol-soo, who made much of the running before eventually withdrawing, had promised to end Lee’s hard line and try to mend fences with the North. With her victory, the task of defining that changed policy falls to Park Geun-hye.
Fences to mend
That said, the detail among the candidates differed substantially. In a useful service, the [US] National Committee on North Korea (NCNK) – whose website is a valuable and perhaps insufficiently known resource generally – put together summaries of the candidates’ positions on the Northern question. The most radical was Moon Jae-in of the opposition Democratic United Party (DUP), who in effect was ready to resume and deepen the “Sunshine” policy practiced for a decade (1998-2007) by the late Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Moon, who served as Roh’s chief of staff, went so far as to advocate an inter-Korean economic union – complete with its own five-year plan. This also would have included a Korean Peninsula Infrastructure Development Organization: a name surely suggestive of the now sadly defunct Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), which did much to lay the foundations for more robust North-South cooperation.
(KEDO’s too soon forgotten story is told by three participants – Robert Carlin, Joel Wit, and its former Executive Director, Charles Kartman – in a book published last year. The authors also did video interviews with 38north.org documenting their experience.)
But this was not to be. The South Korean electorate did not go for “Sunshine” 2.0. In fact most polls suggest that North Korea hardly figured at all in the election. Either way, the main issues and preoccupations were domestic. Although Moon received 48 percent of votes cast (in a high turnout of 75.8 percent) in the presidential election held on Dec. 19 – and was the overwhelming choice of younger Koreans, according to exit polls – he was narrowly but clearly defeated by Park Geun-hye; daughter of the dictator Park Chung-hee (1961-79) and candidate of the conservative ruling Saenuri (New Frontier) Party. Park’s 51.6 percent of the total vote – the first
South Korea-North Korea Relations January 2013
time any candidate has ever gained an absolute majority – past contests have usually been three-horse races – will make her, as one excited commentator put it, Korea’s first female leader since Queen Seondeok of the Silla kingdom in the 7th century CE.
That fact, radical in itself, suggests that South Korea’s next president should not be judged, as her foes tend to, solely by her personal and party pedigrees. Not that those are irrelevant, but the somewhat enigmatic Park is clearly a more moderate conservative than the man she succeeds and there is no love lost between them. Already in a 2011 Foreign Affairs Article, Park called for “trustpolitik” between the two Koreas. That is a catchy slogan rather than a policy – Song Min-soon, a liberal ex-foreign minister, called it no more than “hopeful generalities” – but evidently it signals a desire to build confidence and mend fences.
Putting flesh on that idea will be more complex, however. The concrete policy dilemmas on North Korea which Park Geun-hye now faces were rather well, if pointedly, summed up in early December – when she was not yet South Korea’s leader-in-waiting – in an unusually cogent document from the very people she will soon have to deal with, north of the DMZ.
[To read the following sections of the article, please click South Korea-North Korea Relations: Will “Trustpolitik” bring a Thaw?]
Pyongyang pinpoints Park’s dilemmas
No aid? Then we shoot
Parsing Kim’s New Year speech
From here to paternity
Chronology of North Korea-South Korea Relations, September – December 2012