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South Korean President-elect Madame Park's "Trustpolitik"

By: Se Hwan Youn Pyongyang may detonate its third nuclear device anytime today or tomorrow. Or it could hold off on the explosion until it welcomes in South Korea's new administration with a third nuclear test.

In the meantime, President-elect Park Geun-hye will be inaugurated as the first female leader of South Korea in three weeks. North Korea was not the main issue in her campaign last December, and the President-elect has not yet clearly articulated what operational steps her policy with North Korea would entail. However, North Korea's successful launch of its three-staged rocket last year in defiance of international calls, a feeble UN security council resolution condemning North Korea for the launch, and Pyongyang's threat of the third nuclear test all suggest that the time is ripe for discussing Park's announced positions on North Korea.

In her presidential bid, made more than seven months ago, Park stated that her major policy goal with North Korea would be to stabilize inter-Korean relations thorough “a Korean Peninsula trust process”. This was an extension of the argument she made in the September-October, 2011 edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, in a piece titled “A New Korea.”  Park wrote that a lack of trust prevented the two Koreas from promoting inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation. To rectify the situation, Park broached the idea of “trustpolitik”, essentially employing a verifiable quid-pro-quo strategy that would incrementally increase the level of mutual trust between two states.

Park further noted that this trust-building process will be reinforced by “an alignment policy [which] would entail assuming a tough line against North Korea sometimes and a flexible policy open to negotiations other times.” Practically, this approach would mean she intends to respond harshly to a rerun of North Korea’s provocation in the West Sea while remaining open to negotiations.

According to her memoir, Park believes "trust" is the single most important quality of interpersonal relationships. Recounting her memory of the assassination of her father, former dictator Park Chung-hee, in 1979, Park writes that some of her father’s most avid followers abandoned her after her father’s death. Her personal conviction that trust matters the most in any kind of interrelations seems to have heavily influenced her construction of trustpolitik. The idea also seems popular. Not only does the term "trust" carry positive connotations, it also sounds reasonable to seek reconciliation while avoiding exploitation by the other side.

But in the broader scheme of things, how would Park's trust-based diplomacy change the current security environment in the peninsula - and how is it different from the outgoing administration's policy? To understand Park’s trustpolitik, we need to first answer the following questions. First, why are people calling for a change in South Korea’s North Korea policy? Second, what is necessary in order for South Korea to engage with the North?

Assume for a moment that you are standing in front of the city hall in Seoul – a building which thousands of South Koreans pass by. Get a hold of any South Korean adult and ask them how South Korea should move forward with North Korea. Many times, you are likely to hear the word "engagement". Public opinion feels that Seoul needs to start talking again to Pyongyang to ease the escalatory tension before it inadvertently leads to a spiral of violence in the peninsula.

South Korea's search for a more balanced or tough but flexible North Korea policy is hardly surprising. After observing several years of deteriorating inter-Korean relations under the outgoing President Lee Myung-bak's administration, many South Korean voters felt President Lee's strict stance towards Pyongyang had been counterproductive. Yet, the vivid images of North Korea's attack on the South Korean corvette, Cheonan, and its sporadic shelling of Yeonpyong Island still dwell in many South Koreans' mind; the Sunshine policy of "unconditional aid", vigorously pursued under the late presidencies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, lost its appeal among the public for being too “pro-North". Both conservative and liberal approaches have failed, and the general consensus among South Korean policymakers, experts, and public citizens is that a new strategy is necessary. Many South Koreans place hope in Park’s performance on diplomacy with North Korea.

But how different is President-elect’s ‘trustpolitik’—building trust incrementally through a joint economic project once Kim Jong Eun forgoes his nuclear ambition—from President Lee’s ‘grand bargain’ whereby Seoul would provide economic aid to Pyongyang in return for its nuclear rollback? Is her policy new because it creates a new condition conducive to negotiation? Or is it new because it sounds like a different approach? If the roles were reversed, and Park had won the presidential election five years ago instead of Lee, could her trust-based diplomacy have de-escalated severe tensions in the Korean peninsula?

Consider both the incumbent administration’s and Park’s policies, for example. Both start the phrase with the word “if.” “If North Korea denuclearizes, then we can cooperate”. According to this proposal, denuclearization is a necessary condition for re-engagement. From South Korea’s perspective, a denuclearized North Korea is the status quo of the Korean peninsula. Even though Pyongyang’s nuclear prowess was presented to Seoul with a fait accompli in 2006 and 2009, Seoul cannot give any credit to Pyongyang’s nuclear status due to the strategic and political implications of a nuclear North Korea. From Pyongyang’s perspective, however, the status quo is that North Korea is a de facto nuclear power. The result is that if Pyongyang does not reciprocate Seoul’s initial gesture of cooperation, we have a policy of non-policy. Engagement with North Korea has consistently failed precisely for this reason. Some level of agreement on what the status quo is for both Koreas has becomes a necessary condition for engagement.

My assessment of the President-elect’s trustpolitk is solely based on her article in Foreign Affairs and the positions her campaign team has announced. It is too premature to tell how much Park’s North Korea policy differs from that of the current administration. However, policymakers need to carefully consider the possibility that, whether we like it or not, we might have to deal with a Nuclear North Korea—one with a second-strike capability—in ten years. South Korea and the United States should continue to pull back North Korea from stepping towards the nuclear precipice, but we also have to think about what to do if we recognized North Korea as a nuclear power. The reality is that nuclear weapons exist in North Korea, and reciprocating Pyongyang’s inaction with Seoul’s inaction will not facilitate any trust-building process.

When thinking about how to solve the North Korean question, we need to go beyond setting philosophical guidelines and penetrate into the shell of political rhetoric in order to figure out the set of assumptions that our North Korea policy carries. It is crucial to first discover if those assumptions are compatible with the ones held by the other side before a policy can be deemed viable.

Work Cited

Geun-hye, Park. 2011. "A New Kind of Korea." Foreign Affairs 90, no. 5: 13-18.

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