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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Trustpolitik v. 2.0

by | October 15th, 2013 | 07:00 am

Park Geun Hye’s Trustpolitik got off to a rocky start. The concept was first unveiled in English in a piece published in Foreign Affairs in September/October 2011 and elaborated in an  important speech in November 2012. (Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se offers a very concise exposition for Global Asia.) Trustpolitik served a crucial political function for the remade Saenuri party: to move back to the center on foreign policy by differentiating candidate Park from the more hardline stance of Lee Myung Bak.

The problems with Trustpolitik were not in the merits or the demerits of the concept itself; we were pleased to see a bolder effort to engage. The problem was that the North Koreans chose to engage in the “déjà vu all over again” cycle of missile test, UN condemnation, nuclear test, more condemnation, escalation.

Recently, the Ministry of Unification has been circulating an undated pamphlet that seeks to once again spell out the Trustpolitik concept, but with a lot more detail. Park has also taken the concept abroad, expanding on the idea at the recent ASEAN + 3 meetings in Brunei under the rubric of a broader Seoul Process that could ultimately lead to a Northeast Asian Peace Pact.

The foundation for the policy remains a strong defense that provides a deterrent; in this, it resembles the Sunshine approach. The document also says that denuclearization has to be a part of the North-South process, a complication that Kim Dae Jung did not have to deal with. Putting this on the North-South table is likely to generate plenty of push-back from Pyongyang. However, the document states clearly that linkage to the nuclear issue will not be tight (“It would not be desirable to solely promote the development of inter-Korean ties without progress in denuclearization, but at the same time, it would not be feasible to relate every inter-Korean issue to the North Korean nuclear program.”) This is undoubtedly wise.

The pamphlet makes reference to a phased, incremental process that includes establishing channels for dialogue—almost completely lacking under Lee Myung Bak—addressing humanitarian issues, carrying out exchanges and pursuing Vision Korea projects over the long run. An important signal buried in the document is the willingness to abide by inter-Korean agreements. The North talks repeatedly of respecting the two summit documents—those signed in 2000 and 2007—although conveniently omitting reference to others such as the North-South denuclearization agreement that was to come into force in 1992. This could be a hook that the North Koreans could latch onto.

The document starts with Kaesong, Kumgang and family reunions, includes humanitarian assistance early in the process, but holds forth the promise—a la Lee Myung Bak–of much wider cooperation, including “Green Détente” and the building of a peace park in the DMZ. The document is worth quoting on these later stages:

  • “As we build greater trust on the Korean peninsula and see progress in the North Korean nuclear issue, the ROK government will make efforts to expand North Korea’s infrastructure, including electricity, transportation and telecommunication, in order to enhance the North’s self-sufficiency.
  • We will also support the North’s membership for international financial institutions and explore foreign investment opportunities in the special economic zones in the North.
  • We will also seek to establish offices of inter-Korean exchange and cooperation in Seoul and Pyongyang.”

Further in the future—and perhaps simultaneously with some later steps—the Trustpolitik document revives the Roh Moo Hyun idea of a Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative. These ideas—which we support—would embed what is happening in North-South relations in a broader multilateral context, building out of the Six Party Talks, a peace regime, or something altogether de novo. Such a body could provide security assurances and assist in the financing and technical cooperation that will be crucial for North Korea’s long-term transition.

So what’s not to like? We see three problems. The first is the sheer complexity of the approach and its pastiche-like quality. At its core, Trustpolitik does not appear very different from Kim Dae Jung’s conception of engagement. But the Sunshine Policy was much simpler, encapsulated in three, well-ordered principles: zero-tolerance for aggression; renunciation of unification through absorption; and a push reconciliation and mutual exchange. Of course Kim Dae Jung faced a simpler world; there is now a lot of baggage. But the Trustpolitik document includes virtually every policy idea that previous presidents have put on the table, perhaps with the hope that the concept of “trust” will carry through them; this is a tall order. This approach could work if it allows the North to pick and choose the signals they want to pursue, but parts of the document—on the nuclear issue, on human rights—are unlikely to garner much support and could kill it.

A second problem is what might be called the fallacy of institutional engineering. The document takes a roadmap format, and the incremental process is probably wise. But it is highly unlikely that relations are going to unfold in the stipulated way. The line between aspiration and action is fuzzy throughout, and the document and broader concept are best conceived as a kind of loose framework within which opportunities might be slotted when they arise.

The final problem is North Korea. At its core, the approach is based on small-step reciprocity; the Park administration takes a step—such as negotiating the opening of Kaesong as a trust-building measure—and then the two sides move onto something else where trust can be built. But we thought the cancellation of the family visits was a slap in the face; what does the policy suggest when reciprocity is simply not forthcoming? And we don’t even need to talk about the nuclear issue.

At a deeper level, the North Koreans may well see the entire trope of Trustpolitik as a trap. The DailyNK ran an interesting short piece recently in which several analysts speculated that Truspolitk would generate an internal consensus in South Korea—one of its objectives–that would erode the North’s leverage. Park has also taken the policy abroad in a way that the North Koreans can’t possibly like. A chairman’s statement issued after the ASEAN summit where Park outlined her broader framework urged North Korea to comply fully with its obligations under all United Nations Security Council resolutions as well as its own denuclearization commitments (Global  Post coverage here).  The summit also vetted the idea of a Korea-ASEAN security dialogue and provided the opportunity for Xi Jinping to restate Chinese opposition to North Korea’s nuclear program. If I were sitting in Pyongyang and saw this as a component of Trustpolitik, who needs it?