Although North Korea has offered unconditional dialogue since January, South Korea is maintaining a tough policy line towards the North as Seoul approaches a year of electoral campaign politics. The risk of conflict remains serious, particularly in the area near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the military demarcation in the Yellow Sea.
South Korea: The Shifting Sands of Security Policy, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, warns that relations on the peninsula remain tense, especially around the NLL. The disputed maritime area remains a flashpoint that could spark new clashes, following the deadly incidents of 2010, the sinking of the South Korean ship Ch’ŏnan in March and the shelling of Yŏnp’yŏng Island in November. But the political atmosphere in the South is changing as it enters an election season, with the mood shifting towards a more conciliatory position, including renewed interest in pacifying the NLL.
“North-South relations have played a role in past polls: both sides have attempted to use insecurity to influence results”, says Daniel Pinkston, Crisis Group North East Asia Deputy Project Director. “Although voters tend to favour more hawkish policies at times of insecurity, the right in the South is facing the paradox that voters may blame President Lee’s tough line for the increased tensions”. Threat perceptions in the South are complex: much of the noise that emanates from the North is discounted, but a hard line from the South can raise anxieties.
Elections for the National Assembly will be held in April 2012 followed by the presidential poll in December. Public opinion seems to be swinging away from the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) and electoral victories by the Democratic Party (DP) or a leftist coalition could lead to significant changes in policy towards Pyongyang. However, even though the South Korean President has strong executive powers over national security and North Korea policy, future policy adjustments may be constrained by opposition control of the National Assembly.
Opposition victories and a radical shift in policy towards the North are far from certain. The deep rage that North Korea feels against Lee and his party raises the risk of a pre-election provocation. Another attack, a missile launch or a nuclear test would have a significant impact on the South and the region.
The rival claims over the NLL are unlikely to be solved in any easy or quick manner. A significant rethinking of security policy and engagement with the North, including greater efforts to develop solutions to the NLL issue, is needed. To gain public and political support in the South, any resolution of this problem will require a comprehensive agreement with issue linkage to ensure that South Koreans do not perceive it to be a simple territorial concession to the North.
“North Korea policy is not a prominent issue for the average voter unless a sudden and serious inter-Korean crisis emerges around the time of the elections”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “If a liberal candidate can gain broad public support and capture the presidential election, the implementation of the Yellow Sea peace zone initiative might be only a matter of time”. Whether this will succeed also depends on the North’s reaction, but as it is preparing for a power transfer to Kim Jŏng-ŭn, the possibilities are as broad as the uncertainties.