Park’s approach to the North

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Park’s approach to the North

Many people wonder if the new Park Geun-hye administration will be any better than its predecessor. It’s a question that naturally comes up in a transition period. There’s always a possibility that the incoming government can do better than past ones. For one thing, it gets to start afresh. The new government should also find it easier to score points with the public if the previous government was unpopular - unless it has an early bellyflop.

Despite the usual air of optimism during a transitional period, many cannot shake off an uneasy sinking feeling. That’s because we have seen disastrous ends follow very promising beginnings. This is particularly true in the realm of foreign affairs and security. Despite rosy promises and grand plans at the beginning of an administration, what we end up with at the end are escalated tensions on the frontline and conflicts within our establishment as to how to proceed. This is an unfinished test President Lee Myung-bak leaves to his successor, Park Geun-hye.

Lee’s platform on security and foreign affairs can be summarized as a stronger alliance with the United States and the so-called “Vision 3000” policy toward North Korea, under which the government proposed to provide conditional economic aid as well as assistance in all fields to help the country out of poverty and achieve $3,000 per capita within a decade - if Pyongyang promised to irrevocably scrap its nuclear programs. Given the heightening geopolitical risks from North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and China’s rising clout, Lee’s quid pro quo and uncompromising approach can’t really be said to have been entirely wrong.

However, his strict framing of friend-or-foe, resorting to a hard-line approach rather than dialogue, and unbalanced bias toward the U.S. pushed China and North Korea further away and narrowed the maneuvering space in foreign and security policy.

The incoming president and government should, first of all, restore balance and trust on the foreign and security fronts. They must seek wisdom in security and exchange cooperation, deterrence and negotiation to navigate through a turbulent geopolitical climate. In today’s world, it is better to make as many friends and partners as possible as the world demands competitive reciprocity rather than blind hostility.

The same recipe should be applied to inter-Korean relations. We should keep our security capabilities vigilant against bad contingencies while at the same time endeavor to draw North Korea into the international community. The new president must first clear the rigid and high-handed air of her predecessor. The times call for resolute yet flexible statesmanship. She must form her diplomatic team with qualified and sophisticated figures.

The surprise resignation from the presidential transition committee of Choi Dae-suk, a dovish scholar who preached balance and trust in foreign affairs and rapprochement toward North Korea, raises a lot of questions. Choi was tapped as a strong candidate for unification minister. He was respected equally from both the left and right wings. His withdrawal with no explanation, however, cast doubts on whether the president-elect can reinvent her security and foreign affairs team.

The biggest dilemma on the security and foreign front is the gap between policy makers and public opinion. The president needs to keep her ears open to both sides to combine policy reasoning and public sentiment into her decision-making. The president must be able to explain why her policies are necessary for the country and what the people have to do. President Lee failed in both these aspects.

The presidential transition committee is already drawing criticism for ambiguity, high-handedness and disconnection with the outside. A government cannot expect to draw support from the people without explanations and persuasion. The people are already spooked about President Lee’s ghost remaining in the Blue House.

The president-elect’s foreign doctrine of trust and balance has received wide support from voters just like that of her rival Moon Jae-in of the opposition Democratic United Party did. There was almost no contest between the two on the foreign and security fronts in the December campaign. We have seen an agreement between the ruling and opposition parties on foreign and security policies for the first time since direct presidential elections was restored.

But just because the platforms were alike, it doesn’t mean the public approves. That’s why the new government must seek the public’s understanding and consensus before pursuing its policies.

The biggest test on the foreign and security fronts for Park will be the North Korean nuclear issue. Past governments consistently sought denuclearization. None succeeded. The ruling and opposition parties agree that the nuclear issue must be addressed with a long-term vision. The problem is how to come up with appropriate incremental steps.

So the people ask the president-elect whether she can move beyond ideology and pave a reconciliatory path. She must take heed: One misstep could make matters worse.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

by Chang Dal-joong
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