Geopolitics of President Park’s Trustpolitik

By Hahyung Lee

President Park Geun-hye addresses the media in Berlin, Germany on March 27, 2014. Source:'s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

President Park Geun-hye addresses the media in Berlin, Germany on March 27, 2014. Source:’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Trustpolitik has been a longstanding policy of President Park before and since she was elected as president. The ultimate goal of trustpolitik is to lay the foundation on which neighboring countries can cooperate for the sake of peaceful Korean unification. President Park’s trustpolitik is not merely conceptual but geopolitical. Contrary to popular conception it is not limited to Korea. It targets three geographical areas: the Korean peninsula, Northeast Asia, and Eurasia. She aims to build trust on all three levels simultaneously to reinforce one another. “When the trust-building Process on the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative, and Eurasia Initiative move forward successfully and in sync with one another, a corridor of trust and peace will open,” Park argued in her keynote address at the 7th World Policy Conference on December 16, 2014. President Park made the case this would be a ‘bonanza’ not just to the Korean peninsula but also to the entire region of Northeast Asia and beyond.

A year before she was elected as a president, Park, then the leading presidential candidate for the Saenuri Party, published an article in Foreign Affairs in September 2011. Titled “A New Kind of Era: Building Trust between Seoul and Pyongyang” the piece was her first explanation of the policy of trustpolitik. Park saw distrust as the root of a vicious cycle of inter-Korean relations. She called for the incremental accumulation of trust between the two Koreas to establish “mutually binding expectations based on global norms.” Park urged North Korea to comply with previous agreements made with South Korea and the international community in order to build ‘a minimum level of trust’ for a gradual process of expanding cooperation. In the Dresden Declaration, President Park said, “as the bonds of trust begin to burgeon between the two sides, we can start to look at larger forms of development cooperation.”

While trustpolitik primarily refers to dealing with North Korea, it goes beyond the inter-Korean relationship. In her inaugural address on February 25, 2013, President Park put great emphasis on trust-building not just with North Korea but also with other neighboring countries. In order to alleviate tensions and enhance cooperation in Asia, she said “trust with countries in the region including the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and other Asian and Oceanic countries” is required. The Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI) and Eurasia Initiative that President Park has promoted passionately were developed in this context.

The NAPCI is an important element of trustpolitik to transform geopolitics of Northeast Asia. In her speech to joint session of Congress on May 8, 2013, President Park proposed the NAPCI with an aim to solve what she called “Asia’s Paradox” which is “the disconnect between growing economic interdependence on the one hand, and backward political, security cooperation on the other.” NAPCI, she explained, is ‘a process to build trust’ and that trust will ‘expand the horizons of cooperation’ among countries in Northeast Asia, and will eventually replace a structure of conflict and discord in the region with an order of dialogue and cooperation, starting from softer issues such as nuclear safety, disaster management, and health.

The Eurasia Initiative proposed by President Park during her keynote speech at the International Conference on Global Cooperation in the Era of Eurasia on October, 2013 has the goal of building a new Eurasia as “a single united continent, a continent of creativity and a continent of peace.” To this end, she suggested connecting the Trans-Korean Railway with the Trans-Chinese Railway and Trans-Siberian Railway. Again, trust is at the core of Eurasia Initiative. At the 7th World Policy Conference, President Park said “we will extend our transportation and energy networks beyond Northeast Asia to the reaches of Eurasia. This will not only create a new growth engine for the 21st century global economy but also, in the mid-to-long term, build trust in the political and security domains.”

President Park’s strong push for unification is not an ad hoc way for her to increase popularity after domestic setbacks. Before and after becoming president, she has constantly advocated for trustpolitik on the road to peaceful unification. This is why President Park also included “preparation for unification era” as one of the main missions in her major economic plan, the Three-year Plan for Economic Innovation. In order to actualize her unification policy, she also launched the Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation on July 15, 2014. In the committee, scholars, journalists, and government officials convene together regularly to discuss concepts and ways of Korean unification. President Park has presided over these general meetings herself.

President Park will continue to push trustpolitik ahead to secure cooperation from other states to prepare for Korean unification that could come suddenly. The biggest challenge is how to persuade China and Russia, which are longstanding brothers-in-arms of North Korea and share borders with a united Korea, to stand on her side. President Park sees NAPCI and Eurasia Initiative as ways to build trust with China and Russia and to pull them away from North Korea. President Park’s participation in the grand Chinese military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Beijing, where she stood with President Xi and President Putin showed that trustpolitik is real, and is on the track.

Mr. Hahyung Lee is a researcher with the Korea Chair at CSIS and a fellow at the Asan Academy.


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