Engagement vs. Hard-line: South Korea’s Next North Korea Policy

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By Sangbo Park: 

At present, inter-Korean policy is becoming a central issue for the South Korean presidential election in 2017.  The three possible candidates appear to have different approaches towards North Korea: while Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo from progressive parties underline a peace-oriented policy — including dialogues — and oppose the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment to South Korea, Ban Ki-moon advocates a dual track of enforcing international sanctions as well as providing humanitarian aid to alleviate tension.

South Korea’s policies towards North Korea have been ineffective in the long-term because of the difference between the policy favored by the ruling party and the opposition party. On the one hand, progressive party Presidents such as Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun advocated détente via an engagement policy — the so-called Sunshine Policy — but North Korea misused a significant amount of South Korean aid to develop nuclear arsenals. On the other hand, conservative administrations’ hard-line policy toward North Korea has also failed to halt North Korea’s severe provocations, including the fifth nuclear test on September 9th.

President Kim Dae-jung received the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to reconcile with North Korea through the Sunshine Policy. With the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang and the joint march at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, President Kim seemed to achieve détente as U.S. President Nixon did with the Soviet Union during the peak years of the Cold War. President Roh continued a policy of engagement, the Peace and Prosperity Policy, and extended it beyond the Korean peninsula to create a Northeast Asian cooperation framework, involving international efforts such as the six-party talks. Kim and Roh’s aims to reduce tension and encourage interaction with North Korea enabled the development of the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region and the Kaeseong Industrial Complex.

Their policies, however, had a fatal side effect: they inadvertently helped North Korea resume its nuclear activities in 2002. Kim Jong-il viewed a nuclear arsenal as indispensable to preserve his regime against foreign influence. His military-first ideology (songun) was fundamentally incompatible with Kim and Roh’s goal of denuclearization as a peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue. Thus their idealistic, peace-oriented policies — which heavily relied on dialogues and aid — seemed effective in terms of rapprochement, but their strict separation between political affairs and economic aid aggravated the security situation.

Under a conservative President Lee Myung-bak of Saenuri Party (formerly the Grand National Party), there was a paradigm shift in the North Korea policy from idealism to realism. Though Lee continued to support the goals of peaceful coexistence and reconciliation with North Korea, he did not offer economic aid to North Korea as an incentive for dialogue despite Kim Jong-il’s several demands for inter-Korean summits. Rather, President Lee implemented a reciprocity policy called “Vision 3000 through Denuclearization and Openness,” that promised to raise the North Korea’s per capita GDP to $3,000 in exchange for denuclearization and market liberalization. However, the principle of tit-for-tat, known as the hard-line policy, had a significant disjunction with the engagement policies by his predecessors, leading to an increase in North Korea’s military provocations, including the 2009 second nuclear test and the 2010 ROKS Cheonan sinking and bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island.

Even with increased provocations by North Korea, the South Korean public still supported the Saenuri Party’s hard-line policy rather than the engagement policy of the main opposition party, which helped elect incumbent President Park Geun-hye in 2013. Recognizing the limitation of the hard-line policy, Park first attempted to balance coercion and engagement in her “Trustpolitik” policy, which emphasized trust-building between Seoul and Pyongyang. Despite this adjustment, North Korea aggressively engaged in brinkmanship under the unpredictable new leader Kim Jong-un, including its decision to annul the 1953 Korean War cease-fire agreement again and shutdown the Kaesong Industrial Complex in 2013. In order to remedy the vicious cycle, Park sought to strengthen South Korea’s relations with China, including by attending China’s military parade in 2015 commemorating the end of World War II and holding talks with Xi. China’s leverage seemed somewhat helpful to contain North Korea following the United Nations Security Council’s strong sanction against North Korea in March 2016. However, Park’s policy toward North Korea came to an impasse following North Korea’s fifth nuclear test in September 2016 and China’s continuing, though weakening, support of North Korea. Park instead turned to the U.S. and Japan, confirming close trilateral cooperation against North Korea. In particular, Park decided to move forward with the U.S.-South Korea agreement to deploy the THAAD battery against North Korea despite the opposition of Beijing, which resulted in worsening of the China-South Korea relationship.

Recent history shows that neither the engagement nor hard-line policies brought North Korea to the table for dialogue, let alone convincing North Korea to denuclearize. However, it would be premature to make a firm judgement about Park’s Trustpolitik. Given South Korea’s geographic location and middle power status, a policy vis-à-vis North Korea does require the international community’s mutual understanding on North Korea’s nuclear threat.

As Victor Cha mentioned recently at the Wilson Center’s Korea 101, South Korea’s inter-Korean policy varies with domestic partisanship. Yet changing Trustpolitik to another policy would come with the cost of reconfiguring interactions with North Korea and yield no certain benefits. While Trustpolitik has not yet built trust with North Korea, Park’s efforts to build trust with other international partners, including the U.S. and China, have been meaningful in implementing sanctions and security measures. The next administration — irrespective of party — should sustain the pragmatic policy toward North Korea so as to maximize the possibility of tangible effects.

Sangbo Park is an intern with the East Asia program at the Stimson Center and a fellow at the Asan Academy. 

Photo credit: BC Gov via Flickr
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