South Korea President Park Geun-hye steers steady course
Can a new, vibrant leader break through the clouds of crisis and possible war looming over the Korean peninsula?
South Korea’s embattled new President Park Geun-hye is trying to do just that even as her counterpart in North Korea is adding to the tension.
Park on March 22 approved the first shipment of humanitarian aid to North Korea amid soaring tensions with the North’s volatile leader, Kim Jong-un, who has been escalating threats of nuclear destruction against his neighbors.
Park is the first woman to win a presidential election in South Korea and serve as the nation’s leader. She is also the first child of any previous president to win the position and serve in her own right. Her father, President Park Chung-hee, ruled the country from 1961 to 1979.
Park has been criticized for a shaky and challenging start to her term after taking power on Feb. 25. But in fact she already has moved fast and consistently to cope decisively with an almost unprecedented series of crises facing her country.
First, she refused to be deterred by North Korea’s successful nuclear test on Feb. 12 or by the wave of boasts and threats that followed. She proceeded with the scheduled series of annual defense exercises with the United States.
Second, after her first choice as defense minister, Kim Byung-kwan, agreed on March 22 to stand down because of ethical charges, she asked Kim Kwan-jin, who served former President Lee Myung-bak, to remain in office.
“President Park made the decision as [the defense minister nomination] can no longer be delayed by political disputes and parliamentary hearing given the urgent national security situation,” presidential spokeswoman Kim Haing said.
First time links to former leadership
This is the first time in South Korean history that any new president has asked the defense minister who served the predecessor to remain in power. However, Kim Kwan-jin is a respected and experienced veteran and President Lee, whom he served, shares membership in Park’s ruling conservative party.
Also, Kim Kwan-jin’s continuation in office serves to simultaneously reassure the South Korean people about the stability and predictability of the country’s defense forces in time of crisis and to maintain the smooth running of the nation’s alliance with the United States. His continuation in office means and that no unpredictable or inexperienced new leader will seek to escalate tensions with Pyongyang.
Kim Byung-kwan, a retired general, stepped down from consideration as defense minister after reports surfaced that he had not revealed he had lobbied for a defense contractor. On the previous day, March 21, Park’s Vice Justice Minister Kim Hak-ui resigned in a sex-for-influence scandal though he denied the specific allegations against him.
North Korea receives promise of humanitarian aid
Park has launched the first step in her efforts to reduce tensions with the North, as she pledged she would do throughout her election campaign.
She gave approval to the Eugene Bell Foundation, an international charity that provides medical humanitarian assistance to rural North Korea, to send medicines to fight tuberculosis [TB] valued at $605,000 USD to North Korea.
South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk said the move should not be interpreted as any major conciliatory concession to the North.
“The approval is strictly for humanitarian purposes and should not be read as a message to condone North Korea’s recent provocations,” he said.
However, Park’s gesture is a substantive and significant one.
Tuberculosis is a major health problem among the poverty-stricken 24.5 million people of the North, especially among the elderly and young children. No accurate or official figures are available, but the number of people suffering from TB in North Korea is believed to run into the hundreds of thousands.
South Korea halted government food and fertilizer shipments to North Korea after President Lee took power five years ago. However, Lee permitted humanitarian aid by civic groups to continue.
Park’s decision marks no official change in South Korean policy. But it is a significant gesture of goodwill following three months of escalating tensions since North Korea successfully launched a satellite into orbit on a multi-stage intercontinental ballistic missile on Dec. 12 and followed that up with the country’s most powerful underground nuclear test on Feb. 12.
The shipment of humanitarian aid from the South to the North is the first since both of those events took place. The most recent shipment was sent in November 2012.
The North suffers chronic food shortages, with the situation exacerbated by floods, droughts and mismanagement. An estimated 2 million people starved to death during the great famine in the mid- to late-1990s and hundreds of thousands more fled to China’s Manchuria provinces.
Balanced diplomacy, consistent security
Park has made clear in her first weeks in office she intends to follow the balanced and consistent security and diplomatic policies she spelled out during her election campaign.
As analyst Lee Dong-jun pointed out in the Beijing-based and Chinese government-supported Global Times on Dec. 26, 2012, Park is determined to maintain free market and democratic values, but also to tone down the atmosphere of confrontation she inherited from her predecessor.
“There are some indications that Park will represent a significant challenge to the old conservative ideas in South Korea. From the perspective of her policy on North Korea, President-elect Park is more of a liberal realist rather than a rigid hardliner,” Lee Dong-jun wrote.
“During her presidential campaign, Park tried to play down her conservative stance on the North. She promised to return to engagement with Pyongyang, a departure from the hawkish stance against the North championed by incumbent President Lee Myung-bak, which was seen as a failure by many South Koreans …,” he wrote.
Park has pledged to try to create a new relationship based on trust with the North and improve transparency in cross-border relations. The renewal of humanitarian aid needs to be seen in that context.
Lee Dong-jun pointed out that Park also has signaled a readiness to revive aspects of the Sunshine policy of cooperation with similar economic aid for North Korea that was followed by previous South Korean liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun in the decade before President Lee took power.
President Park would likely turn to a combination of military deterrence coupled with economic incentives to deal with the North, exactly as she is doing now, the Herald Korea predicted in a Dec. 27 editorial.
“What may be needed in handling North Korea is a sophisticated mixture of carrots and sticks,” the newspaper said. “The North should be made to go through some consequences for its provocative acts such as its latest rocket launch. Simultaneously, a dialogue channel must be kept open as a tool for modifying its behavior by suggesting security assurances and other benefits it could gain from changing its course.”
Despite her own more moderate inclinations, Park would have to take the concerns of her more conservative power base into account when framing her economic and security policies with the North, the South China Morning Post warned on Dec. 20.
“Despite moving to the center, Park was carried by her conservative base of mainly older voters who remember with fondness what they see as the firm economic and security guidance of her dictator father, the late president Park Chung-hee,” the newspaper said.
However, Park’s personal toughness and steadiness under continued pressure has been well-established. She is no stranger to adversity. Her father was assassinated in office in 1979 – five years after her mother was murdered in 1974 by a pro-North Korea gunman aiming for her father.
President Park is driven by a sense of public service and duty. Her policies and principles express a determination to maintain South Korea’s democratic political stability and free-market economic success within the context of the nation’s alliance with the United States.
The U.S. signed a mutual defense treaty to support South Korea in countering provocations from North Korea.
Washington’s agreement with South Korea, which was signed March 22 after 2 1/2 years of negotiations, obligates the U.S. military to defend its ally if a war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula. The deal defines the role the United States would play in handling provocations from the North. The two allies said they had been working to improve their contingency plans since the bombardment of Yeonpyeong on Nov. 23, 2010. On that day North Korea fired around 170 artillery shells and rockets at military and civilian targets on the border island in South Korea, killing four South Koreans and injuring 119.
Undoubtedly, Park is determined to show predictability and reassurance as she guides her country through uncertain times.