Yearender: S. Korean president-elect faces conundrum in DPRK policy

2012-12-28 03:27:26 GMT2012-12-28 11:27:26(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

SEOUL, Dec. 28 (Xinhua) -- South Korea's president-elect Park Geun-hye will be taking office early next year with a pledge seemingly unusual for a conservative like herself -- mending ties with the prickly northern neighbor, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Even as she proposes what is vaguely termed as a "trust- building process" on the Korean Peninsula to seek a thaw in cross- border relations, many remain skeptical as to how far-reaching her reconciliation efforts would be.

VICTORY FOR HAWKS

Park, the daughter of South Korea's longest-serving dictator Park Chung-hee, won the tightly contested presidential election on Dec. 19 by winning a majority of vote for the first time since the democratic elections were introduced here in 1987.

Pre-election surveys indicated inter-Korean relations were not the most urgent issue for most South Koreans, with a poll conducted by broadcaster SBS showing only 4.2 percent of the respondents thought the DPRK's Dec. 12 rocket launch could influence the outcome of the tight race.

Still, analysts say the 60-year-old's victory, which came a week after the rocket launch, shows that national security concerns still persist south of the border and that voters chose status quo over radical changes.

Many see the win as an approval of Park's incremental approach to improving relations with the DPRK as opposed to a more immediate, radical approach advocated by her rival, Moon Jae-in of the liberal main opposition Democratic United Party.

A close confidant and a key aide to late President Roh Moo-hyun, Moon voiced support for Roh's so-called "sunshine policy" of active engagement with the DPRK, which provoked accusations that he would be too soft on the recalcitrant neighbor.

While inter-Korean relations thrived during the ten years of liberal rule that dates back to the Kim Dae-jung administration, critics say the unconditional aid to Pyongyang only helped it develop nuclear programs and missiles.

Despite the two fatal border clashes that killed 50 South Koreans under incumbent President Lee Myung-bak's watch, many South Koreans still view the conservative ruling Saenuri Party, which nominated Lee in 2007 and Park in 2012, as better prepared to deal with security woes.

CONFLICTING PLEDGES

Park, who was only 22 when her mother was assassinated by a DPRK gunman in 1974, has repeatedly said she will depart from Lee' s hard-line policy that led to a suspension of nearly all exchanges between Seoul and Pyongyang.

The president-elect has said she is willing to meet with top DPRK leader Kim Jong Un and plans to open various communication channels with the northern neighbor. Social and economic exchanges will be encouraged under her blueprint, which she says would in turn help the two Koreas restore mutual trust on political and military issues.

She has also vowed to continue the project to build a natural gas pipeline linking South Korea and Russia via the DPRK, resume humanitarian aid and seek dialogue with China and the United States on denuclearization in addition to the current six-party negotiations that also involve Japan and Russia.

At the same time, she remains adamant in her commitment to defending the disputed western maritime border called the Northern Limit Line, a scene of deadly naval skirmishes between the rival Koreas. Pyongyang refuses to acknowledge the border, drawn unilaterally by the U.S.-led United Nations Command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Park, who called the DPRK's recent rocket launch a "grave" security challenge and "provocation," also vowed to strengthen deterrence against missile and nuclear threats posed by the northern neighbor and seek close policy coordination with the United States.

Some observers note that there is a yawning gap between her vision for what her foreign affairs advisor Kim Young-mok calls " confidence-building" on the Korean Peninsula and her familiarly harsh rhetoric against Pyongyang.

"What's worrisome is that the president-elect seems to put a heavier emphasis on deterrence and alliance with Washington than on inter-Korean dialogue," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

Security was beefed up and the Seoul-Washington alliance was stronger than ever during the Lee Myung-bak administration, but that did nothing to stop the downward spiral in inter-Korean relations, Yang added, calling Park's vision for reconciliation " ambiguous."

Finding a balance between the two contradictory approaches would require deft navigation by the new Park administration, experts say, especially as they envision continued confrontation down the road.

Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, projected during a recent forum the DPRK might conduct additional missile tests in the near future to test the new Park administration.

Such moves, if taken, would add to the burden on Park to seek a breakthrough in the continued standoff between the two Koreas over the 2010 border clashes.

"Park is talking about a process to restore trust, but then at the same time, she is also talking about robust deterrence against North Korea (DPRK)," said Koh Yoo Hwan, a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.

"If she insists on getting an apology from the North over the incidents just like Lee did to no avail, things will get difficult, " he added. "Trust should come from both sides."

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