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Seoul’s new N. Korea strategy

Publication Date : 01-11-2012


According to newspaper reports, the main presidential candidates are putting forward a more or less similar North Korea strategy: They seem to agree that President Lee Myung-bak’s perception of the North Korean regime is too antagonistic and his strategy too rigid.

Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party emphasises trust building between the two Koreas and a balanced policy approach. Moon Jae-in of the main opposition Democratic United Party advocates the building of trust and the foundation of peace through inter-Korean economic exchange and cooperation. On the other hand, the independent Ahn Cheol-soo propounds trust building and peace building through a northward economic strategy (massive inter-Korean economic development cooperation).

Throughout the history of the Republic of Korea, the South Korean government has adopted its North Korea strategy based on its perception of the North Korean leadership and the security environment in Northeast Asia, and its relationship with the US.

The Syngman Rhee government and the first half of the Park Chung-hee government, from 1948 to 1971, perceived the North Korean regime as the greatest threat to South Korea and therefore decided to defend it by building sufficient military capabilities and the ROK-US defense alliance. It was a kind of confrontational policy. The Cold War was at its peak during this period.

When the US sought detente with the Soviet Union and China in 1972, the second half of the Park Chung-hee government and the Chun Doo-hwan government, from 1972 to 1987, switched its North Korea policy to a moderate containment (detente) policy. During the Roh Tae-woo and Kim Young-sam governments, from 1988 to 1997, South Korea became conciliatory and adopted a conditional engagement (tit-for-tat) policy.

Under Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moon-hyun, from 1998 to 2007, South Korea became more conciliatory because they thought that North Korea would also become more conciliatory, suffering immense economic difficulties and alienated from its traditional allies under the post-Cold War environment. Their policies were called the Sunshine Policy (close to an engagement policy).

But the Lee Myung-bak government has pursued a rigid conditional engagement policy, demanding North Korea’s denuclearisation as a precondition for reconciliation and economic cooperation.

In view of the characteristics of the previous governments’ respective North Korea policies, Moon’s North Korea policy is close to Kim Dae-jung’s engagement policy; Park’s is a kind of soft conditional engagement policy with some elements of the Sunshine Policy; and Ahn’s is a proactive engagement policy. However, they have not talked about how to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue yet.

In the next five years, the next president will have to concentrate on the North Korean nuclear issue, because unless it is solved first, not only will peaceful coexistence between the two Koreas be impossible but nor will inter-Korean economic cooperation and a peace treaty between the two, South Korea’s balanced four-power strategy, and the building of a Northeast Asian security community be successfully realised.

A denuclearised North Korea definitely will expedite inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation but the latter cannot guarantee the former. Moreover, a US-North Korea peace treaty may facilitate the denuclearisation of North Korea, but can hardly warrant it.

It should be noted that throughout the nuclear negotiations North Korea had insisted that North Korea’s nuclear weapons can only be exchanged for a complete guarantee of the security of the North Korean regime (not North Korea). It maintains that a complete security guarantee can only be evidenced by a US-North Korea peace treaty, the establishment of diplomatic relations between them, the lifting of UN sanctions, and the US obstruction of economic transactions between North Korea and other nations.

All these indicate that aside from inter-Korean economic cooperation, North Korea is not so much interested in the peace treaty between the two Koreas and the Northeast Asian security regime.

In view of this, South Korea should lead the six-party denuclearisation talks by emphasising its willingness to expand South-North economic cooperation and by urging the US to accommodate North Korea’s demand for the peace treaty and to moderate other US containment policies toward North Korea. For this purpose, the format of the six-party talks can be transformed into a two (North Korea and the US) plus four or a three (South and North Korea, and the US) plus three format. South Korea can also use the six-party talk process as a means for its balanced four-power diplomacy.

The basic principle of South Korea’s North Korea policy should be flexible reciprocity. Three components of reciprocity -― contingency, equivalence and simultaneity ― should be interpreted and applied flexibly not only in the nuclear negotiations but also in South-North Korean interactions. In the past the conditional engagement policy has applied the principle of reciprocity too rigidly and strictly.

Mutual trust, which all three candidates are committed to pursue, can be built according to the principle of flexible reciprocity.

Park Sang-seek is a professor at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University. ― Ed.


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