2013 Asia-Pacific Forecast: South Korea’s Madame Park Faces the Challenge of China and North Korea

By Victor Cha

South Korean and U.S. soldiers monitor the DMZ with North Korea. Incoming president Park will have to determine what policy course to steer in Northeast Asia. Source: Wikimedia, U.S. government work.

Editor’s Note: The CSIS Asia Team is writing a series of analyses that forecasts key issues and challenges in the Asia-Pacific. In this post Dr. Victor Cha answers key questions about two crucial foreign policy relationships that South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye  will navigate in 2013. Want more analysis? Plan to attend the CSIS Asia-Pacific Forecast 2013 event on January 29 in Washington D.C. or watch the webcast live online.

On December 19, 2012 South Korea had a historic election with Park Geun-hye of the Saenuri Party being elected as the first female president in the country’s and Northeast Asia’s history.

This was the first time for a South Korean presidential candidate to win the election with a majority of votes since democratization in 1987. President-elect Park Geun-hye received a 51.6 percent of votes against Moon Jae-in of the opposition Democratic United Party, who was a former chief of staff to late President Roh Moo-hyun.

Multiple challenges loom on the horizon. Much domestic attention will focus on how she will fulfill her campaign pledges to spur economic growth, reduce unemployment, strengthen economic regulation, and improve social welfare. Her foreign policy challenges are no less daunting, the most interesting of which will be her approaches to North Korea and China.

So should we anticipate major changes in the new South Korean government’s foreign policy?

“Major” would be too strong of an adjective.  “Adjustments” might be more appropriate. Park Guen-hye’s national security team will likely be stocked with mainstream, traditional foreign policy internationalists who value the U.S.-ROK alliance as a center of gravity, but also seek to expand relations with neighbors, including China and North Korea.

How will policy shift on North Korea?

Park Geun-hye is the first South Korean president to have visited North Korea and met with the late leader, Kim Jong-il, before she entered the Blue House. She is therefore less afflicted by the obsession with crossing the DMZ as past presidents.

Having said this, Park has also made clear her desire to take a different path with the North that “builds trust.”  What exactly this means is unclear, but the first operational step is likely to be a de-linking of humanitarian assistance from politics. This might mean unconditional offers of food and fertilizer that were absent under the previous government.

In the larger schemes of things, however, it is unlikely that the Park government will move beyond this level of assistance without reciprocity from Pyongyang on inter-Korean issues such as family reunions, provocations, denuclearization, and the West Sea dispute.

How will relations with China change under Madame Park?

This is another foreign policy priority for the incoming Park government. During the campaign, Park talked about reaching out to Beijing and improving the state of relations left by the previous government. Park is the only ROK president in recent history who speaks Chinese; indeed, when Lee Myung-bak became president in February 25, 2008, he sent Madame Park as his special envoy to China.

As president-elect, her decision to send her first diplomatic envoy, Kim Moo-sung, from January 22-24of 2013, to China is a reflection of her perceived desire to improve relations with Beijing.

But here again, it is unlikely that she will replicate the “balancer” mantra of the last progressive government in Korea (i.e., that Korea would act as a “strategic balancer” between the U.S. and China).  She hosted a meeting in Seoul with a visiting delegation of U.S. government point people on Asia on January 16, 2013, led by Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, which signals her clear interest in the strong alliance.

One area of increasing priority will be to align Seoul and Beijing’s expectations on the future direction of the peninsula. China’s record of increasing economic penetration into North Korea since 2008 (as documented in a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee report) will be something the incoming government will need to address in some fashion.

Simply upping South Korean economic assistance to the North is unlikely to solve the problem. Such assistance would not likely supplant China’s economic stake in the North, but merely complement it.

Can we expect any “wildcards” in the first half of 2013?

One can never rule out the possibility of another North Korean provocation proximate to Park’s inauguration next month. Our research at CSIS has found that Pyongyang has a history of welcoming in new ROK presidents with some sort of military action dating back to 1992.  In this regard, one can never rule out a nuclear test.

There are two additional wildcards, however. Despite President Park’s previous trip to North Korea, one can never discount too heavily the attraction in South Korean circles of a surprise summit.  Secondly, an area of potential escalation is the West Sea. This could go poorly in the sense that we will see altercations and escalation; or it could go well in the sense that the two countries might start inter-Korea dialogue on tension-reduction.  The latter would be a welcome development.

Dr. Victor D. Cha is a senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at CSIS. Follow him on Twitter @vcgiants. To learn more you can RSVP for the CSIS Asia Pacific Forecast 2013 event on January 29 or plan to watch the live webcast online at CSIS.org and keep an eye out for #Asiapalooza on twitter.


Victor Cha

Victor Cha

Dr. Victor Cha is senior adviser and Korea Chair at CSIS. He is also a professor of government at Georgetown University.


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