Previewing Park's New North Korea Policy

South Korea's new president will break with the hard-line approach of Lee Myung-bak.

Park Geun-hye, the newly elected president of South Korea, has embarked on her first official overseas trip. Predictably enough, her destination is Washington.

Of the many issues which are likely to be discussed at President Park’s first summit with President Obama, questions related to North Korea are of special significance. If rumors are to be believed, President Park is going to brief her counterparts in Washington about her new approach to North Korea.

While Park comes from the same conservative camp as her predecessor Lee Myung-bak, her attitude to North Korea is quite different. Lee Myung-bak was a hardliner who always insisted on reciprocity when dealing with North Korea. The North Korean side was in no mood to reciprocate: it did not agree to pay with political and other concessions for South Korean aid. Thus, President Lee’s tenure ended rather badly—most of the joint North-South projects collapsed under his watch while relations between the two Korean states hit the lowest point in two decades.

When Park Geun-hye was elected, she indicated that her approach to Pyongyang would be different. This largely reflects the dominant mood in South Korean society. The average South Korean sees President Lee’s policies as a failure. At the same time, they are not all that enthusiastic about the approach of President Lee’s predecessors—whose left-leaning administrations were willing to shower North Korea with generous aid and unilateral concessions, asking little in return (the so-called “Sunshine Policy” period of 1998-2007).

It appears that Park Geun-hye’s intentions reflect the expectations and assumption of her constituency. The South Korean public of today wants to find a midway point between the two sets of policies pursued by the previous three administrations. It does not want a policy that is too hardline, since the current freeze in relations between Seoul and Pyongyang has, in the eye of the average South Korean voter, led to an unnecessary rise in tensions between the two sides. Yet South Koreans also remain reluctant to throw good money after bad, and reward North Korean misbehavior with generous grants in form of subsidized trade and economic projects.

What the average South Korean voter wants above all is stability. While South Korean politicians of all persuasions still pay lip service to the idea of unification, the South Korean public is steadily losing enthusiasm for this allegedly “great” national goal. South Koreans are cognizant of the fact that unification and postunification reconstruction will be dangerous and very expensive, with all costs being met by them, the hardworking South Korean taxpayer. In light of this, a majority of younger South Koreans would prefer to maintain the status quo, and would prefer to live in a divided Korea rather than meet unification cost—even though such approach is seldom admitted in public.

It is also remarkable how little impact has been produced by recent advances in North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. The average South Korean believes—naively, in all probability—that North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons will never be used on the Korean peninsula, against fellow Koreans. It is widely assumed in Seoul that the North Korean nuclear program was created as a means to deter the threat of the United States and also as a way to blackmail the outside world into giving more aid to Pyongyang. As a result, South Koreans are not all that worried about a program which they do not see as an immediate threat to themselves.

At the same time, the South Korean public does not want relations between the two Koreas to deteriorate seriously. Events like the sinking of the South Korean warship ROKS Cheonan and the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island in 2010 produced great tensions on the Korean peninsula. Such tensions have an adverse impact on South Korea’s economy and create a sense of psychological discomfort on the streets of Seoul.

Therefore, the South Korean voter wants their government to handle North Korea with care. They expect their government to stop North Korea from staging more provocations. Yet their lack of interest in North Korea’s nuclear and missile program means that they think their government should not take an active stance on the issue.

It is widely understood that in order to make North Korea behave, you have to pay it. While rather unhappy about such payments, South Koreans accept the need to bribe the North Koreans to reduce tensions, correctly assuming that the alternative is likely to be more expensive. And yet the South Korean public does not want to be excessively generous. They are willing to pay only as much as necessary to keep North Koreans calm.

The new president seems to be a politician remarkably willing and able to follow the public mood. Thus, she is likely to accept a middle ground between the hardline of her conservative predecessor, and the unilateral, unconditional engagement of the left-leaning nationalist administrations of 1998–2007. For the outside world, however, such policies might appear to be a lighter version of the Sunshine Policy.