How to build trust?The idea of a trust-building process on the Korean Peninsula, the foundation of the Park Geun-hye administration’s North Korea policy, sounded convincing when it was first conceived. According to Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-se, the architect of the notion, Seoul would not drastically change “from left to right, or from right to left” and, instead, strengthen security and pursue dialogue within a reasonable scope.
Minister Yun said, “If you are prescribing a cancer medication, the composition of the ingredients is very important. The Kim Dae-joong administration and the Lee Myung-bak administration used a single ingredient too much.”
President Park’s trust-building process is actually made up of three policy axes.
The first is respecting existing agreements between Seoul and Pyongyang, including the Inter-Korean Basic Agreements in 1991. While it’s important to make new promises, the Park administration hopes to incrementally build trust by respecting the peace and mutual respect already promised in the agreement.
Second, humanitarian assistance will be constantly provided to North Korea regardless of the political situation as long as transparency is guaranteed.
Third, the trust-building process emphasizes that South Korea needs to change as well as the North.
The Park administration seems to have given more thought to the trust-building process than the Kim administration did with its Sunshine Policy, which expected Pyongyang to change on its own as we provided aid, and the Lee Myung-bak administration’s hard-line policy, which focused on Pyongyang changing its attitudes.
The problem is that the foreign policies of Washington and Pyongyang have changed drastically while the trust-building process on the peninsula was being discussed and drafted since the end of last year. In the second term of Barack Obama, John Kerry, who champions talking with North Korea, was appointed Secretary of State and the dominant forecast was that Washington would try to resolve the nuclear issue through talks.
Observers predicted that the “strategic patience” of the Obama administration will be exhausted unless it forces some meaningful change. Before launching a long-range missile in mid-December, North Korea suggested some reform was in the air when U.S. cartoons including Disney characters and the theme from one of the Rocky movies were broadcast. Some analysts thought Pyongyang was trying to escape from the isolation of the past and making moves to open up.
However, when the United Nations declared sanctions following the missile launch in late January, Pyongyang shifted to a defensive, threatening mode. In order to solidify the Kim Jong-un regime’s stability, it has made intense threats for four months. And the United States has been using Pyongyang’s hard-line moves effectively. Having declared its “pivot to Asia” policy, Washington wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to use Pyongyang’s military threats to its advantage.
B-2 bombers, F-22 fighters and a nuclear submarine got used in Korea and the USS Nimitz nuclear aircraft carrier carried out an exercise in the seas near Korea. The hard-line confrontation between the United States and North Korea gave those who advocate strengthening of the Korea-U.S. military alliance and a hard-line policy towards the North within the Park Geun-hye administration a stronger voice. Most notably, the Park administration gave only one day of grace period to North Korea when withdrawing our people from the Kaeseong Industrial Complex.
Despite drastic changes, foreign affairs and security officials continue to emphasize the trust-building process. President Park said, “We believe in our own security stance and deterrence capacity,” a comment that didn’t seem to jibe with the spirit of trust-building. Wouldn’t it be difficult to establish trust when Seoul responds “tit-for-tat” to Pyongyang when the national strength of the North is only one-fortieth that of the South?
If we adhere to the principle of “no reward for bad actions” without an action plan for humanitarian assistance, it would be hard to build trust until North Korea collapses. If the government is not willing to negotiate with the recalcitrant regime, it may want to consider a change of concept in its North Korea policy.
* The author is a senior fellow of the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Institute.
by Ahn Hee-chang