Park must walk fine line with NorthNorth Korea rolled out a long run of comments, statements, commentaries and editorials during the presidential race in South Korea. It heavily lashed out at the controversy over former President Roh Moo-hyun’s alleged deal on the Northern Limit Line, the western maritime border; foreign, security and unification platforms of conservative party candidate Park Geun-hye; and questions about her legacy as daughter of the late Park Chung Hee, the devout anti-communist general and authoritarian president. North Korea was an invisible rabble-rouser in the campaign.
Local press paid little attention to the noise from Pyongyang, as its propaganda mill has always been busy during election season in South Korea. But one propaganda statement stood out. On Dec. 1, a couple of weeks before the presidential election, the Secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, Pyongyang’s official mouthpiece against Seoul, published a statement in the form of an open questionnaire addressed to ruling party candidate and election front-runner Park. Unlike statements issued through party news media, comments from the committee carry heavier weight because they represent the official views of the Pyongyang regime.
Park announced her plank on North Korea, and foreign and security affairs on Nov. 5. The North Korean propaganda agency issued a statement through a spokesman’s question-and-answer format three days after condemning her policies as “confrontational” and “war-prone.” In less than a month, in other words, it produced a set of questions for Park about her stance on North Korea.
The open questionnaire does not veer from its usual antagonistic tone and rhetoric. But it appears to be highly calculated in view of its form and timing. Pyongyang was openly demanding that Park seek a path on North Korea different from the current hard-line stance of the Lee Myung-bak administration by betting on her win. It expedited a statement that should have come after the election outcome was known. It is the first time North Korea has acted so quickly and keenly during an election in South Korea. The unprecedented move may suggest a reconciliatory intent and message to the incoming government under Park Geun-hye.
North Korea had little hope with no-nonsense President Lee Myung-bak and his government that had been openly critical of past liberal governments for their policies of engagement. Not once did it mention the new president’s name for a month after Lee took office in early 2008. It might not have been sure of what to expect from the conservative party that came to power after a decade of rule by liberal governments under presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.
But Pyongyang found its voice against the new Seoul government after Gen. Kim Tae-young, nominated as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a confirmation hearing on March 26, 2008, that Seoul would consider pre-emptive strikes if the North Korean military deployed nuclear weapons. Pyongyang relentlessly unleashed verbal attacks against President Lee, calling him all kinds of names daily. The critical bombardment continues as of today except for a few hiatuses when the two Koreas were engaged in negotiations.
Pyongyang may have thrown out the questionnaire as a dovish gambit in order to not start off on the wrong foot with the incoming Seoul government as it had done with the Lee Myung-bak administration. All the questions more or less contained the same message: “Don’t provoke us.” If its intentions are true, Pyongyang will likely delay its criticism of the new president for some time unless it is provoked with words like “pre-emptive strikes against nuclear weapons.”
But nothing ever goes as planned or expected with North Korea. We often don’t understand the things that trigger them. Back in 2008, General Kim was merely answering questions from lawmakers on contingency situations during a nomination hearing. At the time, few thought his comment about pre-emptive deterrence against a nuclear threat could have served as a critical blow to inter-Korean relations. North Korea might have been looking for any reason to pick a fight with the new conservative government in Seoul.
President-elect Park Geun-hye pledged to normalize inter-Korean ties by activating a diplomatic process based on trust. She proposes to build trust and cooperation across the board, from the socio-economic level to politics and security, and narrow differences to establish practical peace for the long term. But building mutual trust with the North will not be an easy task. Park’s government will have to move discreetly in order not to ruin any renewed mood between the two Koreas without submitting to Pyongyang.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kang Young-jin