Challenges loom in foreign policy, national security

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Challenges loom in foreign policy, national security

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From left: Park Geun-hye, Shinzo Abe, Xi Jinping and Barack Obama


South Korea’s new administration under President-elect Park Geun-hye is expected to face tough challenges in foreign policy and national security as the leadership change comes amidst regional rebalancing of power and rising instability, according to a report released by the Korea National Diplomatic Academy (KNDA).

“The new government that is set to kick off in February will be confronted with the most difficult external environment in the 21st century,” the KNDA report stated last week.

“Over the past several years, there have been changes in the balance of power and more elements leading to instability in terms of international affairs.”

The report also forecasts that “such a trend will continue - in fact, more intensely in the future.”

The KNDA report was released about a week after Park of the ruling Saenuri Party won more than half of voters’ support in the presidential election held on Dec. 19.

While Park will officially take office on Feb. 25 succeeding President Lee Myung-bak, there are mounting concerns that the new president will face increased pressure in dealing with foreign affairs policies, particularly those on surrounding countries - North Korea, Japan, China - and also the United States, which announced its “Pivot to Asia” policy last year.

Along with the South Korean presidential election, there were also several other leadership changes in key regions, including China and Japan.

U.S. President Barack Obama was also elected to a second term in office while North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will carry out his second year of rule after his father Kim Jong-il died of a sudden heart attack in December 2011.

How Park will and should carry out her foreign policy amidst the changes in the region and the North’s nuclear threat has been a question raised by many people.

“The newly-elected president [Park] is facing choices,” said Pang Zhongying, professor of international political economy at Renmin University of China. “She can shape history or fail to do so.”

Professor Pang, in an e-mail interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily, said that “her choice matters” and that “the region, including China, is watching how Park [will] make a difference.”

Last year, tension in the Northeast Asia region involving South Korea, Japan and China reached its boiling point over history and territory issues.

Seoul-Tokyo relations have become thorny lately due to what Korea sees as Japan’s lack of sincerity in resolving the issue of forced occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945.

Outgoing President Lee, during his five-year term, has urged Japan to rightly face history and apologize for its wartime atrocities, including forcing Korean women into sexual slavery, as well as territory issues.

Tensions reached a boiling point in August when President Lee visited Dokdo, Korea’s easternmost islets claimed by Japan, in an unprecedented move.

Park also made clear during her campaign in November that Dokdo is not a subject for negotiation. She also urged Japan to “squarely face” the matter for their two countries’ future.

The focus is now on how Park will push forward with Japan’s new government being led by far-right leader Shinzo Abe, who was elected Prime Minister last month.

During his campaign, Abe introduced some rightist and nationalistic policies such as amending the Yohei Kono statement issued in 1993.

The statement acknowledged the forced recruitment of women into sexual slavery and apologized to the victims, but Abe pledged to review the statement for an amendment.

“[Seoul-Japan] relations will be strained if leaders do not act as leaders,” said Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an e-mail interview. “The next few months are a key testing period.”

Last week, the president-elect’s transition team said that Park will meet with a delegation of special envoys sent by Abe this Friday.

The meeting was arranged at the official request of the Japanese government during Park’s meeting with Japanese Ambassador to Seoul Koro Bessho on Dec. 20, the transition team said. Who the representatives are and what they will talk about is still unknown.

“All three leaderships [of South Korea, China and Japan] are beset with the twin challenges of maintaining economic growth and equality of opportunity at home while meeting public expectations for strength in foreign affairs,” Paal said.

“This is a tricky challenge that has historically gone wrong in the Asia-Pacific region, and we need to learn from history and get the leaders to exercise strong direction of their top priority and educate their people to accept reasonable outcomes, not maximal goals.”

Korea and China have also been at odds in recent years with Beijing’s distortion of the history of Seoul’s ancient kingdom of Goguryeo (37 BC to 668) by launching a so-called “Northeast Project.”

China and Japan are also in a territorial conflict over the Senkaku Islands.

On top of resolving thorny issues with Japan and China, Park is faced with the challenge of dealing with North Korea, particularly Pyongyang’s rocket launch on Dec. 12, which has been strongly condemned by the international community.

The move is seen by other countries, including Seoul and Washington, as a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions that ban the communist regime from testing ballistic missile technology.

Countries like South Korea, the U.S. and Japan have been moving swiftly after the launch to come up with new resolutions that strengthen sanctions on the North, but it remains unclear whether China, the North’s closest ally and also a veto-wielding council member, will agree with others on imposing enhanced pressure on the North.

Experts say that South Korea should take a more active role in taking initiatives on matters involving the Korean Peninsula.

“The U.S. has exhausted politically acceptable initiatives to develop sustainable relations with Pyongyang, all ending in frustration,” Paal said.

“Any new initiative should properly come from Seoul or Beijing, and Beijing doesn’t yet appear ready to take a new approach, though it may be more prepared later in the spring. This gives Seoul an opportunity to take leadership on the peninsula and in the region.”

Park, during her campaign period, had emphasized more flexibility in dealing with North Korea and maintaining a steady South Korea-U.S. alliance.

She also said she is willing to meet with the North’s leader Kim if doing so helps resolve tension on the Korean Peninsula.

“Foreign policy should be pursued with national interest as its foremost goal,” said Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

“It should be pursued based on policy strategies, not on ideology.”

“Especially in solving the North Korea problem, South Korea should avoid seeking lopsided policies, and should come up with a sustainable and long-term policy that entails views of South Korea, the U.S. and China,” he added.

To more efficiently deal with North Korea and maintain security in the region as a middle power country, experts say Park should strengthen the South’s relationship with China and its new President Xi Jinping.

“It is clear South Korea’s relations with China need to be lifted by the new president,” Pang said.

“If it fails to do so but further allies with the U.S. and Japan to isolate China, the new president will be facing not only similar deadlocks in foreign policy issues but also lose historic opportunity to shape South Korea as the center of the East Asia region with full Chinese support.”

By Lee Eun-joo [angie@joongang.co.kr]

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