Park vs. Kim: Who Wins This Game of Thrones?

Park Geun-hye can be hard to read. But when it comes to her approach to inter-Korean relations, the most striking element has appeared to be her willingness to engage North Korea—particularly since her conservative base finds the very idea anathema. Even after the springtime madness that brought the two Koreas to the brink of accidental war, Park stuck by “trust” as the cornerstone of her policy toward the North. She tweaked the phrasing since her 2011 Foreign Affairs article, which introduced the catchier term “trustpolitik”—these days, officials use the more anodyne “trust building process” (신뢰 프로세스). But in either formulation, it is revealing that the Sino-Korean ideograph for “trust” (信) is made up of the characters for “people” (人) and “talking” (言). And sure enough, last week—for the first time in years—the two Koreas started talking again.

Delegations from North and South met on June 9, 2013 in the Panmunjom peace village in the DMZ (where the Korean War armistice was negotiated 60 years ago), with the agenda of setting up a senior-level dialogue in Seoul. For a fleeting moment, Seoul and Pyongyang were actually talking face-to-face, rather than yelling at each other via Ministry of Unification press conferences and Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) statements. Expectations quickly rose that we were on the verge of a new inflection point in inter-Korean relations, and that Park’s “trust” approach really was a departure from the past five years of inter-Korean conflict and acrimony.

Form or Content?

But then, the prospect of serious talks evaporated almost as quickly as it emerged. Seoul’s story is that North Korea refused to send a ministerial-level delegate, and so South Korea lowered the rank of its own head of delegation accordingly to a vice-minister. Pyongyang says that their head of delegation is equivalent to a South Korean cabinet member and that Seoul’s last minute change was insulting. The Seoul meeting never materialized.

Critical assessments here vary as to what went wrong. One view is that Park is not sincere about talking to the North, but merely wants to look more moderate than she is, and so used the protocol issue as an excuse to get out of dialogue. By contrast, some think that Park herself is serious about engaging the North, but is wary of resistance in her own camp from hardliners, and so found a way out because the timing is not right. She may have been caught off guard by the North’s sudden, open-ended invitation for talks on June 6, felt she had to say yes in order to signal openness to Pyongyang, but then looked for an exit since she cannot carry along opposition from her right (yet). Or, she may have read Pyongyang’s decision about who to send to Seoul as indicating that the North is not ready to give her the breakthroughs she wants in order to reconstitute inter-Korean relations. Park after all knows from experience what it’s like to meet with North Korea’s Supreme Leader, and may be over-eager to get to the top of the food chain.

A third view is that Park’s insistence on this protocol issue betrays her ignorance of the North Korean system as well as her advisors’ fear of correcting her mistaken perceptions. Park’s North Korea experts should have explained to her that due to the profound differences between the South’s liberal democratic system—with notably weak political parties—versus the North’s Kim family-led nomenklatura system, it is illogical and impractical to insist “form controls content,” as she reportedly said. Park wanted Pyongyang to send Kim Yang Gon as head of delegation—but South Korea has no formal equivalent to Kim, who holds authority through a party position, not a governmental one, and in a department (the United Front, with close links to intelligence activities) that has no counterpart in the South. Nor does the South have a formal equivalent to the person Pyongyang offered, the director-general of the Committee for Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland.

For now, at least, conservatives who hoped that Park’s talk of re-engagement with the North during the presidential campaign in the fall was just a tactical political move are feeling buoyed by the breakdown in talks. Progressives who hope she can orchestrate some kind of Sunshine Policy 2.0 are more skeptical that she has the political will and savvy to carry out “trust building” with a notoriously difficult dance partner in Pyongyang.

But more broadly, Park seems to have the bulk of the South Korean public behind her, with notably strong public opinion numbers for her handling of inter-Korean relations at the 100 day mark of her administration. Soon after she took office, Park showed she could be tough in the face of aggressive rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang, yet she did not use the tension as an excuse to jettison her commitment to find a way to improve relations and resume dialogue and cooperation. So, by proving her firmness to the public during a sustained security crisis, Park passed the first test. Now comes the harder target of dealing directly with the North, resuming humanitarian and cultural exchange, expanding economic cooperation, and negotiating steps toward mutual security. Fortunately, she is still in a strong position to navigate that process given her mandate from the majority of South Koreans, as well as centrists and pragmatists in the foreign policy establishment, to rebuild trust through dialogue and cooperation.

Pyongyang’s Take on Park

Of course, Seoul cannot build inter-Korean trust alone, relying upon the solipsism of telling the North what to do and what not to do. A less hostile and more cooperative relationship cannot be forced upon Pyongyang by “sharpening their choices” or simply waiting for them to “make the right choice.” In other words, North Korea also has to want improved relations in order for Park to achieve her goals. But here too there are encouraging signs that Pyongyang has an “authentic and credible” interest in creating a very different kind of relationship with Park than the kind it enjoyed with her predecessor Lee Myung-bak, for two reasons. First, North Koreans recognize in Park Geun-hye someone with whom they think they can work, and probably still view her stated commitment to resuming dialogue and cooperation as “sincere.” Second, the overarching strategic priorities of the Kim Jong Un leadership appear to be conducive to resumed inter-Korean cooperation.

For North Koreans in particular, all politics is personal, and starts at the top with the Supreme Leader. When I was in Pyongyang in January, North Koreans reflected a “wait and see” posture toward Park, but they seemed inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to her claims of wanting to improve relations for one simple reason—her 2002 visit to Pyongyang when she shook hands and talked at length with their Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. North Korean interlocutors brought her visit up on a number of occasions as evidence that she is serious about engagement.

North Koreans probably also assess that as a conservative, Park can do a more effective job than a liberal of maintaining political and social consensus behind inter-Korean cooperation, on the “only Nixon could go to China” principle (the same dynamic may be at work in Pyongyang’s efforts to make progress on the abduction issue with Shinzo Abe).

Finally, North Koreans begrudgingly respect her father Park Chung-hee’s achievements—indeed, there have been rumors of North Koreans studying the lessons of the elder Park’s model of developmental dictatorship. Due to her peculiar family history, including the tragedy of her mother’s assassination by a North Korean sympathizer, Park seems to care more deeply about inter-Korean relations. In contrast to her predecessor Lee Myung-bak, a former Hyundai CEO more interested in strengthening the US alliance and rebranding the South in terms of “global Korea,” Park seems to have a passion for healing Korean wounds.

Trust Building and Economic Construction

In addition to this assessment of the new South Korean leader, the DPRK may be serious about improved relations for its own strategic reasons. The post-Kim Jong Il leadership has consistently signaled a commitment to improving the “people’s economy.” As James Church observed, Kim Jong Un ascended to high office with the promise “not make the people tighten their belts again,” and chided Party officials for their “outdated ideological point of view” in economic management, telling them to be more “creative and enterprising.” Economic policy experimentation at the local levels in agriculture and industry has been carried out since last year, as confirmed recently by DPRK Academy of Social Sciences economist Ri Ki Song. On my last visit to Pyongyang, officials explained that the key message of Respected Leader Kim Jong Un’s recent New Years Address was his call to “put all our efforts into economic development.” Even at the height of military tensions this spring, Kim Jong Un held a special Central Committee meeting on March 31 at which he proclaimed a new “strategic line” of simultaneously strengthening nuclear deterrence and promoting “economic construction.” The same day, technocrat Pak Pong Ju was promoted to the Politburo and on the following day named premier, taking up the position that Kim has insisted should have the lead role over the national economy.

This is the larger strategic framework for the inter-Korean relationship: Kim’s legitimacy is tied to “economic construction,” and the North Korean leadership is trying to shift from strength alone to strength plus prosperity. At least some of Park’s advisors seem to understand that promoting mutual interests is a key engine for generating momentum toward more trust in the inter-Korean relationship, and therefore economic cooperation is the key to success for the trust building process.

For now, the pressing issue in inter-Korean relations is the fate of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Pyongyang does not want to shutter Kaesong; they want to expand it. Original plans called for steady expansion of the zone to employ hundreds of thousands of workers by now, but growth hit a plateau as inter-Korean political relations deteriorated over the past five years. The argument that North Korea was looking for an excuse to shut the zone down due to fears of ideological subversion is dubious. Were that so, they would have closed it long ago. If anything, Kim Jong Un is less paranoid than his father about “spiritual pollution” that comes with prosperity—about the “flies that come in when you open the window,” as Deng Xiaoping so eloquently put it. Support for Kaesong remains strong in the South as well, and despite the obvious investment risks, South Korean businessmen are eager for a shot at cracking the North Korean market at Kaesong, Kumgangsan, and elsewhere—and worried they are losing it to Chinese competitors. Although North Korea reacted negatively toward Park’s idea of the “internationalization” of Kaesong, she is right to keep it on the agenda, since bringing non-Korean companies into the zone and expanding access for zone products on international markets is a smart and practical way to continue expansion. In the future, the Park administration should present internationalization as a vehicle for expansion, rather than as a way to make North Koreans feel pressure “to stick to agreements.”

What Next?

A week ago, the two Koreas looked on the verge of forging a new relationship based on direct political dialogue. Now, they look stuck in the same rut of not knowing how to talk to one another even if they wanted to. Perhaps what is needed were backchannel conversations, beyond the spotlight of media attention and political pressures that “optics” generate. President Park probably enjoys the trust of her electorate to pursue that kind of quieter approach.

Meanwhile, the significant portion of South Korean civic society that craves improved relations with the North will not wait forever—especially “divided families” who are running out of time to meet their relatives separated by the Korean War. At some point, Park will have to make the decision whether or not she trusts South Korean people to restore humanitarian, civic, and economic ties to the North.

Park’s inter-Korean policy has the right diagnosis—the problem is the total absence of trust. Now it’s a question of whether North and South can handle the cure.

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