Thursday 11 Aug 2022 | 07:24 | SYDNEY
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President Park: A chance for Korean peace

20 December 2012 09:17

Dr Emma Campbell is a Korea Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

Failure is unequivocally the most appropriate description for the international community's cumulative efforts to bring North Korea into the international fold.

Last week North Korea neatly demonstrated this with the successful launch of its three-stage rocket, Unha. However, the election of a new South Korean president yesterday provides hope at last that things might improve.

They cannot get much worse; the Lee Myung-bak Administration has overseen a narrowing of economic cooperation, serious outbreaks of inter-Korean violence, a continuing humanitarian emergency in the North and a deepening security crisis. The incumbent administration has reached a dead end.

Park Geun-hye's victory in the South Korean presidential election presents a real opportunity for political and economic engagement with North Korea. This is likely to be the last chance for her political generation. Young people in the South are increasingly ambivalent about and even antagonistic toward unification. Their attention is focused on domestic social and economic concerns, with little appetite to push boundaries on North Korea policy.

A pragmatist with regards to peninsula issues and a veteran South Korean legislator, President-elect Park is endowed with cast-iron conservative credentials and heritage: her father was the authoritarian architect of South Korea's economic 'miracle', President Park Chung-hee. This will allow for audacity and boldness in North Korea policy while allowing Park to retain the confidence of the more traditional elements of South Korean society.

An advocate of cooperation and engagement, Park has already made the first difficult steps of reaching out to the North, having traveled there in 2002 to meet with Kim Jong-il. She has recognised that the economic future of the North and the South are heavily dependent on the advancement of peace on the peninsula. And Park has gone as far as to pronounce the progressive President Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy, a policy bitterly opposed by many in her own party, as a continuation of her father's 1972 agreement between the North and South that committed the two administrations to achieving peaceful unification and national unity. In doing so, she has signaled a genuine willingness to act on her pledge to end the bitter partisanship that has marked South Korea's domestic discussions on North Korean policy.

There are also some more base political reasons for President Park to put peninsula issues at the centre of her agenda. The South Korean economy is facing some tough times. Korea's export-led economy is slowing due to falling overseas demand and Koreans are saddled with high rates of personal debt. Generous welfare pledges made up substantive parts of her election manifesto, but keeping these promises may prove more difficult if economic circumstances demand tighter spending controls, and the more conservative voices of her party win out. President Park may look to peninsula-wide issues to bolster her position and secure her presidential legacy.

Whatever her motivations, President Park Geun-hye will need the support of South Korea's allies and neighbours to advance peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula. She has talked about the South's role in developing North Korea's economy and assisting North Korea to normalise its relationship with the US and Japan. Such engagement can take place alongside the maintenance of a strong South Korea-US military partnership but it will not succeed unless the US and Japan (and Australia) are also bold in their efforts to engage with the North.

The spectre of North Korea looms large over every new South Korean presidency, its shadow ever more imposing following the recent rocket test. Park Geun-hye now bears the responsibility of guiding South Korea toward a productive engagement with the North. With the announcement of her intention to convene an inter-Korean summit, the signs are positive. Let us hope that her unique political history and position enables her to achieve the lasting peace and stability that has eluded those who came before.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.