By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
Countries worried about North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons and missile development programs may be heaving a sigh of relief that Park Geun-hye has been elected South Korea’s new president.
Not that Park, the 60-year-old daughter of a former dictator, is going to emulate her conservative party’s outgoing President Lee Myung-bak’s hard-line policy towards the North.
The sense of relief has more to do with the loss suffered by her liberal rival Moon Jae-In, who had pledged unconditional engagement and economic assistance to North Korea.
The United States particularly has been concerned that any such move could fuel the North’s weapons building programs, especially after its launch of a long-range rocket carrying a satellite into orbit last week in defiance of U.N. sanctions.
As Park was acclaimed winner on Wednesday after one of the most divisive South Korean elections in years, “one could almost hear a sigh of relief from Washington,” said Evans Revere, a former senior U.S. diplomat with extensive experience in negotiations with North Korea.
He said many U.S. Korea experts were concerned about a progressive victory and the possibility that Moon would pursue a foreign policy agenda at odds with the United States, which has about 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea as a deterrent against aggression by the North.
“With U.S.-[South Korea] relations now at their strongest in decades, some experts believed a win by [Moon] would complicate bilateral coordination on a range of issues, not the least of which was North Korea,” said Revere, now a nonresident senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
“Differences may arise, but the solid level of trust that has been built up between Washington and Seoul in recent years should help smooth any rough patches that arise.”
Revere predicted a “challenging” period ahead as North Korea flexes its military muscle amid bleak prospects of international talks aimed at dismantling the hard-line communist state’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
“Thanks to its recent successful rocket test, the North has moved a step closer to the day when it will have a credible intercontinental ballistic missile capability and a deliverable nuclear weapon,” he said.
“That prospect has been made all the more troubling by the failure of all previous diplomatic efforts to block Pyongyang’s determined effort to become a de facto nuclear weapon state.”
In her first policy address on Thursday, Park, who will be South Korea’s first female president, underlined the “grave” security threat posed by the renegade northern neighbor and pledged to work for regional stability in Northeast Asia.
“The launch of North Korea’s long-range missile symbolically showed how grave the security situation facing us is,” Park said as she met with the ambassadors from the United States, China, Japan, and Russia—the four other countries which have held now-suspended talks with Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons program.
China, North Korea’s main ally and aid provider, and the United States are split on how to end Pyongyang’s persistent flouting of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Beijing has resisted U.S.-led moves to impose new sanctions.
Marcus Noland, a North Korea analyst at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. said a Moon victory would have “bucked up the Chinese in the Security Council” and influenced the current negotiations on how to punish North Korea for its rocket launch.
Moon was an ex-chief of staff to Lee’s predecessor, the late President Roh Moo-hyun, who championed the so-called “sunshine policy” of no-strings-attached aid for Pyongyang.
“In some sense,” Noland said, the U.S. has “dodged a bullet.”
Victor Cha, a former White House top Asia hand, said North Korea’s latest defiant rocket launch may have contributed to Moon’s loss by a narrow margin of 48.0 percent to 51.6 percent.
The rocket launch was hailed by the North as a peaceful satellite mission but condemned by most of the world as a disguised missile test that violated U.N. Security Council resolutions stemming from Pyongyang’s illegal nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
“One also has to imagine that North Korea’s missile launch last week could have hurt the progressive camp’s chances as they trumpeted a return to the proactive engagement policies of previous progressive presidencies,” said Cha, now an expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He believes Park, a five-term lawmaker, will seek to consolidate relations and ensure policy coordination with Washington in the event of more North Korean provocations, which he said may be in the offing.
Both Park and Moon had distanced themselves from current President Lee’s hard-line policy towards North Korea, including supension of major humanitarian aid, which drove Pyongyang to renew nuclear and missile tests and to launch two deadly attacks on its southern neighbor.
“The clearest foreign policy dividing line” by Park and Moon was over the degree of engagement they would pursue with North Korea, said Scott Snyder, director of the U.S.-Korea Policy program at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.
Moon, the son of North Korean refugees and a former human rights lawyer, had proposed unconditional engagement and restoration of economic aid to the North while pledging to hold an inter-Korean summit within his first year in office.
He had wanted to address North Korean denuclearization and hold discussions on a Korean peninsula peace regime, with the expectation that Pyongyang would become nonthreatening to its neighbors.
On the other hand, Park, whose mother was killed in 1974 by a pro-North Korea gunman aiming for her father, had insisted that North Korea meet its prior commitments to denuclearization as a prerequisite to major infrastructure assistance.
While Park’s approach offers front-end economic benefits to the North and promotes the need for greater inter-Korean dialogue, her conditional approach to denuclearization is conceptually similar to the current policy embraced by both Seoul and Washington, Snyder said.
Revere said U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is unlikely to oppose a renewed South Korean attempt to improve ties with Pyongyang.
But he cautioned that such an effort will have to be carefully coordinated so that it does not undermine current efforts to punish the North for its violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and the steps the United States and other nations are taking to raise the cost to Pyongyang for its continued pursuit of missiles and nuclear weapons.
“Madame Park, like the U.S. administration, seems to harbor no illusions about the Pyongyang regime, and by all accounts she shares U.S. skepticism that North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons,” he said.
North Korea also appears uninterested in mending fences with the South
“This is the fundamental issue. Both of the candidates were pledging more engagement with North Korea, but North Korea frankly has shown little evidence of being interested in a true engagement that will involve an increase in genuine mutual dependence,” analyst Noland said.
Stephan Haggard, a Korea expert at the University of California, San Diego, agreed.
Even if Park comes up with a more open approach to North Korea, it is not clear how the reclusive nation will respond, he said.
“We see little evidence—now or in the past—-that the regime in Pyongyang is attentive to South Korean political dynamics, nor was it interested in delivering a win to an incoming Moon administration,” he said.
Haggard said any attempts towards reconciliation with North Korea will hinge both on South Korea’s parliament and on broader public opinion.
“The South Korean public remains quite divided on aid to the North, and interestingly young voters are not necessarily more forthcoming.”