Park grappling with elusive goal of building trust with N.K.

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Feb 9, 2014 - 20:06
  • Updated : Feb 9, 2014 - 21:53
Graphic by Han Chang-duk

One year into office, President Park Geun-hye faces the daunting task of building genuine trust with North Korea, a goal that has eluded her predecessors amid mutual antagonism fueled by an ideological and military standoff.

The bilateral agreement last week to hold cross-border reunions of separated families later this month is expected to offer a much-needed boost to Park’s “trustpolitik” drive. Yet, her initiative is still fraught with uncertainties given the opaque nature of the communist regime.

Experts are calling on Seoul to strive harder to engage Pyongyang and take a more realistic approach to break the impasse in the bilateral ties, rather than sticking rigidly to its demand for the “veracity” of the North’s denuclearization efforts.

“In order to be successful, ‘trustpolitik’ needs to be thought of as long-term, and will require much patience. At the moment, there does not seem to be much hope of building any genuine trust between Seoul and Pyongyang,” said Stein Toennesson, senior research fellow at the Peace Research Institute Oslo.

“The best is probably now to try to build as many contacts as possible with various North Korean personalities who may become influential in the future.”

Differentiating her policy from the strictly reciprocal approach of her predecessor Lee Myung-bak, Park has stressed her dialogue-based initiative to gradually accumulate trust with the North.

Yet, her push has gained little traction amid Pyongyang’s provocative moves, ranging from an underground nuclear test to a long-range rocket launch and to the unilateral shutdown of a joint industrial complex.

With four years left in her single-term, five-year presidency, experts said that this year would be a critical juncture for Park to forge a major turnaround in the inter-Korean relations.

Abiding sources of mutual distrust

The fundamental source of inter-Korean distrust is rooted in conflicting ideologies, which has spawned concerns that one side may pursue peninsular reunification under its own ruling ideology and could jeopardize the other’s governing principles.

The rules of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party stipulate that the ultimate purpose of the party, whose authority goes beyond any other state entities in the reclusive state, is to construct a “communist society” on the peninsula.

“When Seoul envisions a unified Korea under democratic rule and Pyongyang a communist-led reunification, there are fundamental limits on their way toward cooperation, reconciliation and mutual trust,” said Huh Moon-young, a senior fellow at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification.

“Pyongyang has two national goals ― maintaining the dynastic socialist ruling system and communizing the whole peninsula. Unless these goals change, cultivating true trust with the North would remain elusive, candidly speaking.”

Huh added that Seoul should first acknowledge the limits in the inter-Korean ties and seek more viable measures to promote bilateral cooperation, which would help reduce mutual distrust.

Also compounding trust-building efforts is Pyongyang’s tendency to use any negotiations for cooperation or reconciliation for domestic political purposes aimed at keeping the dynastic ruling system, analysts said.

“They generally do not negotiate to improve peace and security on the Korean Peninsula; they rather focus on gaining advantages that they would not be able to gain in day-to-day activities,” said Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation.

“Ultimately, the problem for the North Korean regime is that life in North Korea is not very good, forcing the North Korean government to identify external adversaries that are responsible for the problems. Otherwise, the regime might appear to be responsible, which of course it is but the regime cannot afford to tell its people the truth.”

The deteriorating security dilemma has also kept each other from marching together toward reconciliation.

Pyongyang’s military adventurism, marked by its nuclear armament, has led Seoul to push for stronger deterrence and security cooperation with the U.S., which further exacerbated bilateral distrust.

From the North’s perspective, the South is undermining security on the peninsula with its regular military drills with the U.S. Seoul argues the drills are strictly defensive in nature, but Pyongyang says that they are a rehearsal for a “nuclear war of invasion.”

The security dilemma can be mitigated should each rival take painful steps to build trust, not in words but in resolute action, as witnessed in the process of the U.S. and former Soviet Union moving toward their common security.

But analysts argue that the then-Soviet Union was different from the North.

The North, a pariah state, has little to lose and dares to take risks, while the Soviet Union had much to sacrifice had hostilities with the U.S. occurred ― a reason why the great powers were able to manage the nuclear “balance of terror” stemming from “mutually assured destruction.”

“The U.S. learned that the Soviet Union was generally risk averse: it was not willing to risk its survival to achieve petty benefits. That observation allowed the U.S. and the Soviet Union to reach many agreements that were mutually beneficial,” said Bennett of the RAND Corp.

“Unfortunately, the North Korean regime regularly demonstrates that it is prepared to take risks, as it did last year when it cancelled the Armistice Agreement, declared war on the ROK (Republic of Korea), and threatened the U.S. with a nuclear attack. North Korean instabilities make the North a risk taker, complicating any efforts to negotiate with or build trust with the North.”

Policy inconsistency after a change of government in the South is also part of the hindrances to the trust-building endeavors, observers said. Seoul’s policy toward Pyongyang has oscillated between active engagement and strict reciprocity, depending on leaders’ political orientation.

Emerging opportunities for Park

Park is now in a good position to push for inter-Korean trust and reconciliation, experts say, given that the impoverished North is in dire need of outside aid, while the U.S. and China have their hands full with domestic and external challenges.

Washington appears to keep what commentators call a policy of “strategic patience” as it grapples with financial woes, a slew of domestic political conflicts, Middle East issues and other conundrums.

An emergent China has grown increasingly impatient over Pyongyang’s military adventurism as it is being called upon to play a role as a “responsible stakeholder” in maintaining peace and stability in the region.

Pyongyang, which argues it has already established itself as a militarily, ideologically “strong” nation, now seeks to fulfill its remaining mission: to resuscitate the moribund economy and shore up the sagging support from its starving people.

For that, Seoul is arguably the most crucial partner for the isolated regime. That is particularly true when the North’s military brinkmanship does not work any more as an effective bargaining strategy.

Park Myung-lim, a renowned war historian at Yonsei University, said Pyongyang has already lost opportunities to maximize the benefits it could achieve through the “nuclear card” as the international community has grown immune to its hackneyed blackmail.

“Pyongyang has used the ‘threat’ card for so long, too repeatedly that its efficacy has substantially decreased. That is the biggest dilemma facing the North Korean regime now,” Park said.

“The Korean War that Pyongyang waged led to a strengthening of the Korea-U.S. alliance and the thriving of South Korea, after all ― the opposite of the result it might have anticipated. Likewise, the nuclear card, in the long run, would only deepen the North’s isolation and strengthen the international collaboration to pressure the North to renounce its nuclear ambitions.”

For President Park, 2014 is a crucial year to mend fences with the North, analysts said, pointing out that a president’s political clout to push for major policy initiatives peaks in the first half of his or her presidency.

Park has sought a departure from her predecessor Lee’s policy, which critics said was “inflexible and too strict.” Lee’s approach linked Seoul’s aid to the North to progress in Pyongyang’s denuclearization, whereas his liberal predecessors offered unconditional largesse to the cash-strapped country.

Critics said her policy has not been different from Lee’s so far considering that she has adopted a seemingly tough policy line under her “principled” approach to rebuilding a “normal” state-to-state relationship with Pyongyang.

During her presidential campaign in 2012, Park promised a “flexible, balanced” approach in handling Pyongyang while stressing “comprehensive defense capabilities” to deter provocations through the long-standing security alliance with the U.S.

Park also outlined her plan for a step-by-step process toward ultimate political unification, which proceeds in the order of trust-building, the settlement of peninsular peace and then the forging of a unified economic community.

Call for engagement, internal unity

Amid Pyongyang’s incessant nuclear saber-rattling, Seoul has hardened its stance and stepped up its demand to show “sincerity” in the North’s denuclearization efforts.

Experts cautioned against Seoul linking the nuclear issue rigidly to the improvement of the overall cross-border relations, calling for a more flexible, realistic and pragmatic approach to discourage the North from furthering its nuclear capabilities.

“For North Korea, the nuclear program is the most effective, inexpensive way to secure its survival against the South and the U.S., or the international community. So, through words, it would not ever be willing to exchange its ‘sincere’ will to renounce the nuclear program with other benefits in return,” said Park of Yonsei University.

“Seoul should acknowledge the reality that leaving the nuclear program unattended is tantamount to letting the nuclear issue worsen further. Based on this reality, it should push to actively engage with the North.”

Forging internal consensus over how to deal with North Korean issues is also a vital task for the Park administration. The South has long suffered from ideological division over how to deal with Pyongyang, which observers called the “South-South conflict.”

“The most important thing for the South, above all, is to address its seriously divided public opinion. The government should reach out to and enhance its communication with the public and seek to build consensus over the approach to the North,” said Huh of the Korea Institute for National Unification.

“Based on that consensus, Seoul should try to deepen cooperative ties with the U.S. and China, the two major powers concerned with North Korean issues, and at the same time, seek to improve ties with Pyongyang. Seoul should do all these altogether. It is like solving puzzling math equations.”

Indeed, international cooperation to resolve peninsular issues is critical as the issues carry regional and global implications ― a reason why Seoul should continue to maintain strategic ties with Washington, Beijing and other stakeholders in Korea’s stability.

“For trust building ― and conflict prevention ― between South and North Korea, I think the overall climate in the region is also important,” said Toennesson of the Peace Research Institute Oslo.

“The triangular relationship among China, South Korea and Japan needs to be improved, and there should be some kind of understanding among China, South Korea and the U.S. on what signals to be sent to Pyongyang. These signals should be coordinated and include both stern and gentle warnings against provocations and offers of economic and cultural cooperation.”

By Song Sang-ho (