Foreign Policy Blogs

The Twilight of President Park’s Trustpolitik


South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye (L), North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (R). (Reuters)

The recent shutdown of the Kaesong industrial complex is only the beginning of new series of strong measures in response to the North Korean Missile provocations. During her recent address to the National Assembly, President Park stressed her intention to adopt a more assertive strategy to induce the North Korean regime into complying with international rules and regulations.

Despite the pressure and the warnings of the international community in regard to Pyongyang’s relentless desire to acquire nuclear capabilities, North Korean leaderships shows no intention of returning to the negotiable table and renounce to nuclear power.

While President Park has stressed that the North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear power will only accelerate the collapse of the country, Washington has deployed four F-22 Raptors stealth jets at Osan Air Base, facing the North Korean border. Yet, Seoul and Washington are still discussing the additional deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), one of the most advanced missile defense system, able to intercept ballistic missiles.

In the last few days, Washington confirmed that the DPRK’s requested to discuss the terms of a formal peace treaty after almost 65 years since the end of the Korean War. Yet, the U.S. and South Korea demand the end of North Korea’s nuclear program as a precondition to discussing a peace treaty, causing a brusque rejection from Pyongyang.

This recent show of force against North Korea has been just part of the new and more resolute strategy launched by President Park in dealing with the reclusive regime. Last week, the Kaesong joint industrial complex was closed after the Minister of Unification, Hong Yong accused Pyongyang of using workers’ wage to finance its nuclear program.

This is the first time that South Korea decided to withdraw its personnel from the joint economic zone that for a long time embodied Seoul’s proactive engagement toward Pyongyang. Certainly Kaesong represents a valuable source of foreign currency for North Korea, with around $560 million in revenue since 2004 flowing to the North according to recent estimates.

Calling for a hard-line strategy against the DPRK, President Park has shown her determination to reconsider the trutspolitik that has characterized her administration until now. Under the policy framework Korean Peninsula Trust Building Process, President Park fostered reduced tensions with Pyongyang, aiming to promote dialogue and defuse the threatening North Korean’s nuclear ambitions as a prerequisite for the normalization of  inter-Korean relations.

South Korean soldiers look toward the North Korean side as a North Korean solder approaches the UN truce village building that sits on the border of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the military border separating the two Koreas, during the visit of U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to the DMZ in Panmunjom, South Korea, on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

South Korean soldiers look toward the North Korean side as a North Korean solder approaches the UN truce village building that sits on the border of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the military border separating the two Koreas. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

South Korea’s Policy Toward North Korea: Changing Scenario

Security in the Korean peninsula has been the most immediate concern for Seoul since the partition of the country in two in the aftermath of the Korean War. Despite ideological and military confrontations, Seoul has made several attempts to normalize relations with Pyongyang.

In the 1970s, during a speech commemorating the 25th anniversary of the end of Japanese colonial rule, President Park Chung Hee openly proposed the peaceful coexistence of the two Koreas, inviting Pyongyang to cease all hostile confrontations and promote domestic reforms. Under Roh Tae-woo’s administration (1988-1993), some limited forms of mutual engagement were achieved upon the signing of the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression and Exchange and Cooperation between the South and the North in 1991.

In the last decades, Seoul has tried different strategies to cope with humanitarian, economic and security impasses provoked by the DPRK. Under Kim Dae-jung, the fostering of a new a more proactive level of engagement between the two Koreas known as Sunshine Policy created room for establishing a dialogue, preventing new frictions and bolstering the security in the peninsula.

Yet, the Sunshine policy was eventually abandoned in 2008 when Lee Myung-bak’s administration opted for a more resolute strategy toward the DPRK. While the Sunshine Policy provided $3 billion in economic and humanitarian aid to appease Pyongyang, Myung-bak demanded the abandon of the nuclear program as a prerequisite for peace and closer economic cooperation, setting the stage for a long phase of tensions with the North Korea.

Besides adding more pressure on Pyongyang, he expanded the level of strategic cooperation with Washington to pursue a cooperative self-reliant defense as the backbone of his national security policy, whose effects are still evident today.

However, opportunities for cooperation between two countries were suddenly disrupted by the DPRK’s decision to withdraw from the NPT in 2003. The resumption of the North Korean program and the DPRK unabated desire to become a nuclear power in order to ensure the regime’s survival has become the main goal of the DPRK’s elite. Furthermore, since Kim Jong Un has succeeded his father as the DPRK’s supreme leader, he has sought to reinforce its grip over the military in order to consolidate his power.

The formal recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power would represent Kim Jong Un’s most remarkable achievement, leaving no doubts about his leadership within the regime’s elite. Kim Jong Un’s intention to never renounce the pursuit of nuclear weapons has been shown by his decision to revise the DPRK’s constitution in April 2014, clearly proclaiming the country as a nuclear-armed state.

New Scenario Ahead 

The recent developments on the Korean Peninsula have surely jeopardized President Park’s trustpolitik strategy. Since she was elected President Park strongly has emphasized the importance of establishing dialogue and cooperation as the main foundation for a future unification. Nonetheless, in her last address to the National Assembly, she invoked the collapse of the North Korean regime, stressing Seoul’s determination to neither making concessions nor tolerate any additional provocations from Pyongyang.

Additionally, North Korea’s deceitful use of military threat and compromises over its nuclear program as a bargain chip has stalled negotiations on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula time and time again. North Korea is currently experiencing a revival of its militaristic power under Kim Jong Un, so there is little hope for pivotal changes in foreign policy, especially after the extensive purges that removed possible challengers to the supreme leader’s rule.

Indeed, North Korea considers its nuclear program as the most vital tool for regime survival and has rejected any sort of agreement on denuclearization, even under the pressure of Beijing. Slapping additional sanctions could exacerbate tensions and increase the likelihood of a miscalculation or even the risk of a military escalation, without making Pyongyang more inclined to give away its nukes.

Park’s new strategy toward its hostile neighbor will strongly affect the strategic balance Northeast Asia, with an increasing U.S. military presence and a foreseeable installation of advance THAAD despite Beijing’s opposition. In this scenario, Seoul’s renewed assertive behavior against Pyongyang’s brinksmanship could escalate into a larger regional crisis.



Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, the DPRK and Chinese foreign policy. He also writes for Global Risk Insights. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito