President-elect Park Geun-hye has completed her foreign and security policy lineup led by moderate conservatives who emphasize a realistic balance between dialogue and pressure in dealing with North Korea.
The team led by top presidential security aide Kim Jang-soo has pressed for a major policy shift to normalize inter-Korean ties after five years of chill under incumbent President Lee Myung-bak. The Park team’s new approach promises more flexibility calling for openness and accommodation with the North while maintaining robust deterrence.
But Pyongyang’s renewed nuclear brinkmanship is already narrowing their policy options and threatening to derail the reengagement policy. Experts widely expect lingering tensions to strengthen hard-line elements in her government, thus throwing cross-border relations deeper into crisis.
|North Korean soldiers ride an escalator past a model of their country’s Unha Rocket as they enter an exhibition on Sunday in Pyongyang, where Kimjongilia flowers, named after the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, were on display. (AP-Yonhap News)|
Former Defense Minister Kim was among the first group of appointees as Park faced pressure to respond to the North’s third and more powerful nuclear test last Tuesday.
Her new Cabinet nominees include Yun Byung-se for the Foreign Ministry, Ryoo Kihl-jae for the Unification Ministry, and Kim Byung-kwan for the Defense Ministry. Park on Tuesday appointed the last member, Ju Chul-ki, to become senior secretary for foreign affairs and security.
The two Kims are former military commanders, Yun and Ju were diplomats, and Ryoo is an academic.
As the global fury persists over the North, the security policymakers will face tough struggles to keep afloat Park’s “trustpolitik” policy, the main feature of her road map for a peaceful peninsula, reunification and Northeast Asia.
With hands-on experience and expertise, the members are mostly deemed rightists who put a pragmatic approach ahead of ideological beliefs.
While critics worry they give too much weight to the alliance with the U.S. and prioritize the security agenda, their former colleagues and officials praise what they see as their overarching pragmatism and professional deftness.
“One good thing is almost all of them are prepared to get down to business right away without having to be briefed on every single thing that’s going on,” a government official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
“They probably know what they’re dealing with and what the problems are, though the answers may not be that easy.”
But the security crisis following Pyongyang’s atomic blast is threatening to leave her two-track strategy between a rock and a hard place even before its official takeoff.
Amid increasing hawkish voices in government and parliament, the president-in-waiting herself appears to be leaning toward a hard-line stance, putting aside her pledge to resume dialogue with her northern counterpart Kim Jong-un.
“‘The Korean Peninsula trust-building process’ is based on strong deterrence,” she said at a meeting on Feb. 13.
“As the old saying goes, it takes two to tango. We can carry it out together only if North Korea shows sincerity and an earnest attitude.”
The next day she told former Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono that “under the current situation it is difficult to proceed” with the initiative.
Kim Jang-soo said after seismic activity was detected on Feb. 12, “If a nuclear test is confirmed, things will not be the same as the past.”
Yun told JoongAng Ilbo last week that “the trust process is not a one-sided appeasement or get-tough policy toward North Korea but a countermeasure tailored for the leadership’s behavior.
“It applies principles that we sternly respond to the nuclear issue and make them rightly pay for their provocations.”
Some analysts have said that the much-touted policy could easily drift toward President Lee Myung-bak’s stringently reciprocal, conditions-loaded approach Park blamed for the freeze in cross-border ties.
In addition, her plan rejects unconditional economic aid and entails her predecessor’s demands that the North meet prior commitments on denuclearization such as the one made in a July 4, 1972, joint statement.
“There must be challenges for the incoming government to distinguish itself from the incumbent in approaching North Korea issues, given that Park also speaks for conservative voters,” said Chin Hee-gwan, a unification studies professor at Inje University in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang Province.
Despite criticism of Park’s alleged lack of communication and watertight decision-making process, her very rigidity may help her realize her promises, others say.
Hong Hyun-ik, a senior researcher at the private Sejong Institute, acknowledged an inevitable chill for the first few months after her Feb. 25 inauguration but forecast that the new government would attempt détente and reconciliation with the communist neighbor later on.
“You should at least begin fostering détente perhaps in the later half of the year. After some time, the public sentiment will shift in favor of dialogue, too,” he told The Korea Herald.
After his nomination on Sunday, Ryoo vowed utmost efforts to follow through on the initiative and also bolster security.
“I well recognize the grave situation of the Korean Peninsula and many citizens’ concern about it,” he said in a statement.
“I will strive to build trust on the peninsula as suggested by the president-elect’s ‘trust-building process’ policy while firmly ensuring national security.”
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org