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Previewing Park Geun-hye's Foreign Policy Agenda

Tags: South Korea , Korean Peninsula , East Asia , Asia-Pacific , Foreign Policy

Akutsu, Hiroyasu

January 23, 2013

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On December 19 last year, South Korean citizens elected Park Geun-hye of the conservative Saenuri (New Frontier) Party as the eleventh president of the Republic of Korea. On January 6, President-Elect Park officially launched her transition committee, which will aid her in selecting a cabinet and fleshing out policy in advance of her inauguration on February 25.

On January 15, the transition team announced a plan to consolidate presidential oversight of four strategic policy areas through the creation of "control towers," including one for foreign policy and national security. The following day, the team concluded a week of ministry briefings from the outgoing government.

For Japan, the biggest question remains the direction that Seoul's foreign and defense policy will take under the new administration. In the following, I hope to shed some light on this question by reviewing Park's election platform.

Balancing Act

Park's administration is widely expected to take a more flexible stance toward North Korea than outgoing President Lee Myung-bak, whose hard line had become extremely unpopular. In fact, moderation and balance may be the keynote of Park's foreign policy platform overall, as seen in her pledge to cultivate stronger ties with China even while strengthening the ROK-US alliance, as well as her views on North-South relations.

©Park Geun-hye official album
©Park Geun-hye official album
Under the heading of North Korea, Park's platform begins with pledges to "deter North Korean provocations by a comprehensive strengthening of defense capabilities, including the ROK-US alliance" and to "prepare fully for the 2015 OPCON transfer"—that is, the transfer of wartime operational control over ROK forces from the United States to South Korea. She also promises to "establish a comprehensive foreign, national security, and unification policy 'control tower' (e.g., a National Security Office)." This organ, referred to again in the aforementioned announcement of January 15, will most likely be set up within the president's National Security Council.

Under the topic of national defense, Park promises to "enhance our ability to substantively counter a variety of security threats," focusing on stronger deterrence capabilities vis-à-vis North Korean provocations near the maritime Northern Limit Line, construction of the Jeju Island naval base, and a buildup of forces in the region. She pledges to "build a positive defense capability based on an active preemptive deterrence strategy" (including swift development of long-range missile capability), to enlist the cooperation of local governments in strengthening the nation's defenses against psychological and cyber warfare, and to incrementally acquire such capabilities as military satellites and surveillance drones.

With respect to the ROK-US alliance, Park pledges to enhance security cooperation with the United States on national defense and conflict prevention and to utilize the alliance to seek closer multilateral and bilateral security cooperation with other regional countries. She calls specifically for efforts to build the alliance's combined "extended nuclear deterrence" capability.

With regard to the scheduled 2015 transfer of wartime operational control, she stresses the need to prepare for a smooth transition and develop a stronger independent strategic capability, calling for "establishment of a stable new ROK-US combined defense system predicated on South Korean leadership and support from US forces" and for steps to enhance "periodic mutual assessment and verification of the process" of transferring operational control.

However, Park's platform also stresses engagement and conciliation with North Korea. She promises steps to improve inter-Korean relations within the context of a larger framework for cooperation in Northeast Asia and pledges to "pursue tangible South-North consultations to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem."

She also outlines a "Vision Korea" initiative, predicated on "trust and progress in denuclearization," that would undertake a number of economic cooperation projects with the ultimate goal of building an economic community on the Korean Peninsula. The cooperation envisioned includes assistance with developing North Korea's power, transportation, and telecommunications infrastructure, helping it gain membership in international financial institutions, and fostering foreign investment (as by exploring possibilities for South Korean participation in North Korea's special economic zones), all with the aim of building North Korea's economic capacity.

Park also promises to bind the economic interests of the Korean Peninsula to those of Northeast Asia as a whole through trilateral cooperation projects with China as well as with Russia. In addition, she pledges to "upgrade reciprocal South-North economic cooperation and social-cultural exchanges" and work to "establish a South-North Exchange and Cooperation Office in Seoul and Pyongyang."

China figures prominently in Park's platform, and the emphasis—reflecting South Korea's unique geopolitical position—is on the need to strike a balance in relations with Washington on the one hand and Beijing on the other. Park proposes a "trilateral strategic dialogue among Korea, the United States, and China” and stresses the need to "maintain harmonious and cooperative ties with the United States and China." She also pledges simultaneously to "deepen and develop the ROK-US relationship into a comprehensive strategic alliance" and to "upgrade" South Korea's ties with China to reflect the two countries' "strategic cooperative relationship." Recently, Park announced that Beijing would be the first destination for the special envoys that she will be sending to Japan, Russia, and the United States, as well as China.

Korea and Japan: Common Values and Strategic Concerns

In terms of relations with Japan, Park's platform gives little cause for optimism regarding the resolution of territorial disputes. While calling on "the governments and civil societies of Korea, China, and Japan to sustain their efforts for reconciliation and cooperation in order to lay a firmer foundation for a correct understanding of history in Northeast Asia," she begins with a pledge to "respond firmly on the basis of our core national interests," asserting that "under no circumstances can we allow infringements on our sovereignty."

Although Park previously positioned herself as an advocate for closer relations with Japan, stressing the need to "transcend the past" and approach relations from a "broader, forward-looking perspective," the government will continue to be constrained by public opinion, which favors a hard line toward Tokyo. For example, further progress on the bilateral military accord (including an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement and a General Security of Military Information Agreement) on which the governments of Lee Myung-bak and Yoshihiko Noda had reached a basic understanding seems unlikely in the near term, given the strength of the popular backlash against it.

Still, in view of North Korea's December 12 ballistic missile launch and the very real possibility of a third nuclear test in the not-too-distant future, the need for defense cooperation between Japan and South Korea is clearer than ever. And like it or not, Seoul must build its foreign and defense policy around its foremost security concern, namely, North Korea. We should be alert to any incipient shift in this direction as the transition team continues its work, including possible revisions to Park's public pledges.

Japan and South Korea are neighbors with common security concerns, as well as a shared commitment to democracy, a free-market economy, and human rights. In dealing with the new administration, Tokyo should sharpen the focus on common strategic goals while maintaining a pragmatic, step-by-step approach to improving bilateral relations.

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