Iron Ladies can bendInter-Korean relations were on the verge of a breakdown. We couldn’t reach an agreement even on the issues that were negotiable. But lately, a turning point seems to have come. Analysts cautiously predict that further aggravation is not guaranteed, and may be unlikely, after we go through various challenges.
But questions obviously remain as they always do with the North. We cannot be sure how sincere North Korea will be at any given point in the future. Any country can nullify an existing agreement if it is against its national interest. That does not necessarily violate international practice. However, signing an agreement without an intention to comply with it is problematic. North Korea has repeated that particular conduct frequently. That’s why a considerable part of the public wants further pressure on the North. It is generally perceived that Pyongyang’s improved attitude on the Kaesong Industrial Complex is a product of President Park Geun-hye’s “response by principle” to make a “grave decision.”
However, there are also people who want Seoul’s attitude changed for so-called future-oriented inter-Korean relations. We need to embrace a greater cause in order to overcome the divisions. Realistically, Pyongyang’s “guarantee of normal operation of Kaesong Industrial Complex in any case,” as promised in Kaesong Wednesday, may be the most we can get from the North.
Of course, we need to keep one thing in mind: The North Korean nuclear crisis is no closer to resolution. North Korea’s behavior since the beginning of the Park administration has been beyond the brinkmanship it used so many times before. The Park administration’s task is not to tolerate North Korea’s provocations in the least. President Park has to make hard-line responses to Pyongyang based on principles.
As we all know, Park is a woman of principles. Her role model is former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She has said that her favorite politician is the so-called Iron Lady, and Thatcherism is exactly the kind of leadership that can save Korea from crises.
Why does President Park like Thatcher and take cues from her? Clearly, she is not interested in neoliberalist policies such as small government or reduced welfare. Rather, she seems to be attracted to the steely will of the Iron Lady, the refusal to compromise, an aversion to the status quo. Along with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Thatcher was a symbol of the anti-Soviet struggle, fiercely resisting threats from the Soviet Union.
In January 1976, Thatcher, who was head of the opposition Conservative Party, said, “The Russians are bent on world dominance, and they are rapidly acquiring the means to become the most powerful imperial nation the world has seen. The men in the Soviet politburo don’t have to worry about the ebb and flow of public opinion. They put guns before butter, while we put just about everything before guns. They know that they are a superpower in only one sense - the military sense. They are a failure in human and economic terms.” After that speech, the Red Star, the Soviet Army’s newspaper, called her “Iron Lady,” a decision they may have later regretted.
Three years later, Thatcher became prime minister and her attitude to the Soviet Union remained unchanged. However, in February 1984 in the Hungarian capital of Budapest, she made a speech with a completely different view. “We’ve also acknowledged our differences, ideological, political, social, they are there and they cannot be wished away but in recognizing them we have not dwelt upon them, instead we’ve concentrated on the future, the peaceful and prosperous future which ordinary people want the world over.” She continued: “For my part I hope I have convinced them with my sincerity and while I’m known as the Iron Lady - I also have an iron resolve to work for an easing of tension and for a safer and more prosperous world in which less is devoted to arms and more to wellbeing.” Then when she went to Moscow, the Iron Lady showed the world her iron resolve to ease tensions with the Soviet Union.
Thatcher was against the Soviet Union to the core of her being, but she did not hesitate to put her iron resolve into work improving relations with it. She was different from Reagan or Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who did not attend the funeral of Communist Party General Secretary Yuri Andropov. Thatcher did not hesitate to make her first visit to Moscow a condolence call. Then, she surprised the world by having a meeting with new Secretary of the Communist Party Konstantin Chernenko. Her change of direction is unimaginable in Korea, where attending a North Korean leader’s funeral would lead to serious controversy.
President Park seems very firm on her hard-line stance for now. Whether she might try a shift in direction to improve inter-Korean relations as her role model Thatcher did is unknown. President Park wants to operate a Korean Peninsula “trust process” to make North Korea a country where common sense works. We are closely watching if this “woman of principles” will summon the resolve to make a radical change in direction.
Translated by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
* The author is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.
by Chang Dal-joong