An acid test of Park’s leadershipPresident-elect Park Geun-hye’s leadership has been put to the test even before her inauguration. North Korea has defied international warnings and conducted a third nuclear test. Park believes that Pyongyang is aiming to cause confusion during a power transition period. The young leader of North Korea also carefully timed the bomb for shortly before the U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
It will be an acid test on her leadership. After just a year in office, Kim Jong-un proved to be unruly with the nuclear and missile assets he inherited from his father. He has become bold and destructive, and the security order of the Korean Peninsula has been thrown into disarray. The fear factor can eclipse reason. The de facto state of war becomes the actual state.
The military force on the south side is suddenly out of balance. All the conventional weaponry put together is no match for one nuclear bomb. It makes our military’s proud line-up of state-of-the-art fighters and warships look paltry in comparison.
Still, Park doesn’t waver. She warned that no matter how advanced its nuclear weapons technology may be, Pyongyang won’t be able to save itself, and its nuclear capabilities will only precipitate its doom. She added that the Soviet Union collapsed even with mighty nuclear arms.
Park’s rhetorical statement is reminiscent of U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s get-tough policy on the Soviet Union, which he referred to as “an evil empire.” Reagan escalated tensions and pushed the Kremlin into the corner by challenging its legitimacy and accelerated the crumble of the Communist bloc. Park may be applying the conservative U.S. president’s tested tactics. It is her usual style of taking the bull by the horns.
Kim Jong-un is dutifully following in his father’s footsteps with the nuclear trump card. He repeats the old brinkmanship strategy to get the world’s attention. The strategy is composed of dreary processions of provocations and bargaining aimed at wearing the opponent out. The “strategic patience” turned out to be naive wishful thinking from the State Department officials. Nuclear brinkmanship has so far never failed Pyongyang.
During her political career, Park earned her signature character in maintaining her consistency and conviction. Consistency can generate trust. Once she makes up her mind, she does not change it. She also has been uncompromising in acting out her decisions. Her tactics won credibility and support from the people. She is poised to apply them on foreign, security and North Korean affairs now.
Both Park’s policy on consistency and the North’s brinkmanship have been proven successful, which aggravates the tension between Seoul and Pyongyang. The contest of will and policies between the two can shape the future of the Korean Peninsula. Either Park will activate a new inter-Korean relationship or Pyongyang will win recognition as a nuclear arms state.
Park is familiar with the deceased leader of North Korea. She was invited to Pyongyang by Kim Jong-il in May 2002 toward the end of President Kim Dae-jung’s term. The scene of her meeting with Kim often was compared with the summit between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il in June 2000. The faces of South Korean delegates beamed with excitement over the first-ever summit meeting. But Park remained calm and reserved as usual. She talked with Kim in her usual soft and restrained manner. She rarely gets intimidated even with the enigmatic leader of North Korea, having been trained as the first lady in her 20s.
Park may be studying her cards. The cards include redeployment of U.S. strategic nuclear weapons, pursuit of nuclear sovereignty and nuclear armament for self-defense, and resumption of psychological warfare with North Korea. All of them are risky and demand strong leadership.
Whatever she decides, she must not forget that she must seek a public consensus first. But most South Koreans are disinterested or immune to North Korea’s nuclear threats, having lived with a maverick neighbor so long and gone through the same drill time and again. It is also the side effect of the unproductive Six-Party Talks and engagement policy. People have become disillusioned about a diplomatic solution to North Korea’s nuclear moves, having witnessed the disastrous and wasteful outcome.
The downside risk has been great. South Koreans tend to regard the North Korean nuclear threat as an issue similar to that of Iran. Some even believe the problem should be solved by Washington and Beijing rather than Seoul. Extreme leftists even advocate for Pyongyang by saying a nuclear weapon is their protection against the Goliath Americans.
The sunshine policy of the liberal governments helped to expand inter-Korean exchange and aid. But there has been greater harm than good. What’s worse is that we let down our guard against North Korea’s nuclear threat.
The incoming government must set the house in order. It should start with a new mindset. North Korea’s nuclear problem is ours. South Korea has the highest stakes and interests in the matter. The government as well as the people must be armed with a commitment to solve the problem.
Park Geun-hye’s governance will be judged in the early stage. North Korea’s advances in their nuclear and missile program are our nightmare. We will be held hostage by destructive weapons. We cannot lead a normal life with an atomic bomb threat over our heads. There is not much time left. The new government must discourage Pyongyang’s weapons program.
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon