Security Challenges and Transitions: A Look-Ahead to the Next Korean Presidential Administration

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By Moon Young Jun – The Republic of Korea (ROK) stands at another crossroad as it heads into its 18th presidential election this December 19th. This time around, South Korea is emerging onto the global stage as a major economic and soft power, but the constant security risk of North Korea threatens to hamper the rise of the ROK’s international profile. Although the campaigns have mostly focused on anti-trust reforms, tax increases, and welfare expansion in the past few months, the recent shift towards the candidates’ North Korea policy highlights the importance this policy will have on South Korea’s future.

Over the last 15 years, Washington has seen drastic shifts in Seoul’s policy toward Pyongyang. When the Sunshine policy was first articulated 1998, it was heralded for its optimism and revolutionary approach toward the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). However, after 10 years of this policy, the pendulum of public opinion swung to the opposite as it was widely panned for the unconditional aid it offered, the lack of goodwill gestures from the DPRK in return, and its negative impact on US-ROK relations, resulting in President Lee Myung-Bak’s strict-reciprocity policy toward the DPRK in 2007. Five years later, with inter-Korean relations at their worst, most South Koreans desire a president that will establish an effective and stable North Korea policy. 

Yet, the challenge of providing a balanced, effective policy toward the DPRK at this point will be harder than ever.  The next administration will need to stabilize the Korean peninsula, build an economic foundation for eventual unification without perpetuating the more repressive and aggressive aspects of the DPRK government and set reasonable conditions under which economic aid and trade will occur.  Ultimately, the next administration’s North Korea policy will hopefully  set the ROK on a sustainable course until unification occurs.   

Currently, all three presidential candidates, who are running neck and neck in the polls, have responded to the public sentiment for engagement with the North by pledging to promote dialogue and to consider greater economic linkages, albeit to varying degrees and with differing conditions.

The liberal opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) candidate, Moon Jae-In, is espousing the most progressive North Korea platform.  Moon, who was President Roh Moo-Hyun’s chief of staff, is currently receiving the most attention of all three candidates, due to the recent controversy over Roh’s alleged disavowal of the Northern Limit Line (NLL).  The maritime boundary was initially established by the UN without the North’s approval, but Pyongyang pledged to “observe” the NLL in 1971, even though they did not formally accept it.  Moon’s promises of creating a South-North Economic Union and a Korean Peninsula Infrastructure Development Organization, while resolving the nuclear issue with the DPRK through a peace treaty is criticized as unrealistic.  Additionally, the recent NLL controversy has raised concerns that Moon’s policy would result in problems similar to those of the Sunshine policy.

The conservative ruling New Frontier Party (NFP) candidate, Park Geun-Hye, is advocating a policy that is more flexible than President Lee Myung-Bak.  Specifically, she is promoting a platform of “trust-politik,” which calls for the DPRK to change its nuclear policy, stop flouting international diplomatic norms, and work toward mutual trust-building.  Park is also indicating she is willing to start normalization talks and would open liaison offices in the respective capitals of the two nations. However, her policy differs from Moon’s in that it prioritizes ROK security, while his emphasizes cooperation with the DPRK.  Still, some critics aptly note that trust-building should be a means to an end and not be the ultimate objective.  Others argue that Park’s policy towards North Korea’s nuclear problem and the NLL is virtually unchanged from President Lee Myung-Bak and that it may be difficult to establish the trust that she is advocating. Considering the fact that she has been the target of vitriolic North Korean attacks, it may be difficult for Park to work effectively with the DPRK government and the PRC leaders who support them. 

Meanwhile, the independent candidate of the race, former dean of the Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology at Seoul National University Ahn Cheol-soo, has espoused a moderate platform and called for “a policy upgrade from the tolerant (Sunshine) policy of the Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun era,” and to move on from the futile reciprocal policy of the Lee administration.  However, as a political novice, he has yet to propose a consistent platform that articulates specific foreign and national security policies, and it is unclear whether he will have the political clout to push through his platform in the National Assembly.  Complicating matters even further for Ahn is the fact that the ROK will be taking greater responsibility for its own defense as the US will transfer wartime operational command of the ROK forces back to South Korea in 2015.  This means that if Ahn is elected, he will need the political acumen to devise a concrete plan to balance the seemingly counterweighing goals of protecting South Korea’s security interest, on the one hand, while effectively engaging the DPRK on the other.  

Admittedly, campaign pledges are not necessarily the most accurate predictor of the actual policies that will be implemented in an administration, as they are broken almost as easily as they are made. However, at a time when former Assistant Secretaries of States for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill and Richard Solomon are respectively predicting that the DPRK may have a major “convulsion” and possibly “pull a Burma” in the next four years, the next president will need to formulate a policy based on pragmatism and not populism as the three candidates are doing now. And with South Korea’s rising international profile as a middle-power nation and a newly elected non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, this means that more people around the world will be watching how adeptly the next South Korean president manages the numerous variables that will affect the ROK’s policy toward the North. Ultimately, success or failure in establishing a balanced, long-term DPRK policy at a time when North Korea is becoming less predictable, less stable, and perhaps undergoing its own economic reforms may very well define the legacy of the next South Korean administration.

Photo Credit: Moonjaein via Flickr,

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