The soft touch

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The soft touch

The six-month report card on the performance of President Park Geun-hye and her government generated a good amount of public interest. It can be concluded that her poor score in appointments to the cabinet and other senior posts was compensated for by her North Korean policy. A thawing of the total freeze in inter-Korean ties - as seen in the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and negotiations to revive reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War and tours to Mount Kumgang - reversed the clumsy start of the new administration.

When President Park stepped into office, South-North relations were at their nadir. Her vision of a so-called “trust process” to solve issues on the Korean Peninsula sounded naive and unrealistic in the aftermath of North Korea’s willful belligerence. Bilateral ties looked almost irreparable after the Kaesong industrial park, the only remaining symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, was closed down.

Now the two Koreas are experimenting with new approaches in the grey zone of conflict and dialogue. But it remains unclear whether the North is sincerely willing to change its attitude.

What made Pyongyang suddenly shift the mode to dialogue? Most agree that President Park’s consistent message and conviction helped move Pyongyang. She sternly warned of the possibility of using traditional hard power - military actions against any form of aggression. At the same time, however, she was capable of employing the soft power of diplomacy and persuasion. North Korea expert Yoo Ho-yeol of Korea University described Park’s North Korean policy as a unique and smart mix of principle and practicality.

As a politician, Park has built a sophisticated image as a person with both convictions and cool civility. She artfully blends hard and soft power. Many wonder if this is a natural talent or whether it comes from training from an early age. After all, she grew up in the presidential house and played the role of first lady for her father after her mother was assassinated.

People close to her attribute her character to her turbulent political trajectory. In the previous government, she played the role of leader of an opposition within the ruling party after her primary defeat to rival Lee Myung-bak. She was like South Korea sandwiched between two global powers - the United States and China. Although lacking actual power, she cleverly navigated between the pro-Lee faction in the ruling party and the actual opposition. Her soft power and principles were her weapons to build and wield her influence on the political stage.

Her skills shone during her summits with the leaders of the U.S. and China. She adroitly expanded the diplomatic space for her country between America and China through soft diplomacy.

Few question the importance of strong Seoul-Washington ties. But we can’t deny China’s influence is growing while America’s is waning. We are now in a multilateral security strategy. The ability to maximize our soft power could determine the chance of one day solving the conundrum on the Korean Peninsula.

It is unclear how the scandalous story of Lee Seok-ki, a Unified Progressive Party lawmaker accused of conspiring to overthrow the government on behalf of North Korea, will affect inter-Koreans ties. President Park recently named a veteran diplomat as her new senior secretary for political affairs. Her strategy of applying soft power to politics could also be employed in inter-Korean policy.

Dialogue with North Korea has never been and will never be easy. The phrase made famous by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s - “Trust, but verify.” - is appropriate here. Japan’s Asahi Shimbun recently reported that Kim Jong-un has authority but not power. If that’s correct, North Korean policy will inevitably turn murky if we do not know who the real power is in Pyongyang.

George Kennan, the American diplomat who authored the containment policy against the Soviet Union, once said the USSR would have changed much faster if the U.S. focused more on soft power to trigger implosion or “mellowing from within.”

We value people who carry out visions as much as we do the original inventors of these ideas. We want to see such people in the current administration. We could take a lesson from U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1940 recruited John McCloy and Robert Lovett from the Republic Party to his national security team. They are remembered as the so-called Six Wise Men who helped redesign post-war U.S. foreign and establish U.S. predominance on the globe. When the two reminded him that they were Republicans, their Democrat president would mumble, “I always forget that.”

What brought them together? Their intellectual talents were converged in a spirit of bipartisan practicality. More precisely, it was the magical work of real politicking. President Park knows something about that.

Translation by the Korea JoonAng Daily staff.

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

by Chang Dal-joong
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