Park Geun Hye’s Trustpolitik has had a rocky history, facing both conceptual problems of how to square various circles and the perennial difficulty of dealing with a highly defensive North Korea. From the beginning, President Park sought to pull North Korea policy back from the intransigent stance of the Lee Myung Bak administration, but the problem was always “how.” The central issues boiled down to four:
- How would Seoul respond to short-run downturns in the relationship—including military conflicts such as those that greeted her speech almost immediately?
- What is the concept of reciprocity undergirding the approach? How much is Seoul willing to extend to the North on an unrequited basis before some quid-pro-quo is required to move forward?
- In particular, how would Trustpolitik be linked with the nuclear question?
- And most fundamentally, how do we talk to North Korea about a process with an end goal of unification, emphasized as a “bonanza” by the Park administration since the beginning of the year? Everyone knows that if unification were to come, it would only come on Southern terms and that those terms would mark a complete and utter repudiation of the North Korean model.
In a significant speech in Dresden President Park made her most visible and comprehensive effort to date to answer these questions; it is definitely worth reading or watching. Needless to say, the choice of Germany—and a former East German city in this case—was hardly coincidental. Both Kim Young Sam (March 1995) and Kim Dae Jung (March 2000) made Berlin the site of major addresses on unification.
The speech had the title “An Initiative for Peaceful Unification on the Korean Peninsula. Dresden: Beyond Division, Toward Integration” and began with references to the parallels between Germany’s and South Korea’s economic history—including her father’s role in it—and the significance of a knowledge-based economy. Park pulled absolutely no punches with respect to the challenges unification faces, avoiding euphemisms in describing North Korea’s deficits with respect to both material well-being and political freedom and the isolating effects of the nuclear program.
Nonetheless, she returned to her long-standing theme that the first step is building some modicum of trust, recognizing that a nation is not “made whole again simply by virtue of a reconnected territory or the institution of a single system.” Rather, the cornerstone of the entire approach is to be found in a “people to people” approach, “the kind of interaction and cooperation that enables ordinary South Koreans and North Koreans to recover a sense of common identity as they help each other out.” In her “Ich Bin Berliner” moment, Park closes by saying “Wir Sind ein Volk,” emphasizing the bedrock cultural—even racial—appeal of unification.
The speech began with three concrete proposals:
- The first is humanitarian, regularizing the family visits and expanding assistance to “ordinary North Koreans.” Park promised to work with UN agencies—a departure from the Kim Dae Jung-Roh Tae Woo approach—to “provide health care support for pregnant mothers and infants in North Korea through their first 1,000 days.” A back-of-the envelope calculation suggests this is not a modest proposal and could potentially involve millions of households.
- The second component was infrastructure.
- Interestingly Park began with agriculture: “multi-farming complexes that support agriculture, livestock and forestry in areas in the north suffering from backward production and deforestation.” This emphasis on regional inequalities is foresighted, and was joined to an appeal to European NGOs, the UN and—of particular note—the World Bank; to date, the World Bank does not have a presence in North Korea, which we have long argued it should. Although left unstated, such complexes would provide an alternative to the inefficiencies of the collectives.
- Park rightly pushes off the big-ticket infrastructure investments—transportation, infrastructure and mining–but she does make explicit mention of projects with both Russia and China (in Sinuiju). The significance of this trilateral approach is both in reducing risk but also to get around the restraints of the post-Cheonan May 24 sanctions; we discussed these complexities in the context of the November Park-Putin summit.
- The third component of the approach are the people-to-people exchanges “in historical research and preservation, culture and the arts, and sports — all of which could promote genuine people-to-people contact – rather than seek politically-motivated projects or promotional events.” The president mentioned education as well, and called for the establishment of an inter-Korean exchange and cooperation office to manage these tasks.
These initiatives are all outlined prior to Park’s return to the nuclear theme, suggesting that the issues are not tightly coupled. If North Korea were to signal a willingness to abandon its nuclear ambitions, a whole series of further initiatives might follow including membership in international financial institutions, Seoul’s help in attracting foreign investment, a Northeast Asia Development Bank “if deemed necessary,” and a revival of Roh Moo Hyun’s vision of a Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative “to address North Korea’s security concerns through a multilateral peace and security system in Northeast Asia.”
We were impressed with both the tone and vision of Park’s speech. It does not pull punches with respect to South Korean values, but also acknowledges that it is necessary to start somewhere and that putting everything on the table at once is impractical. But even the most simple steps—such as regularizing family visits and expanding humanitarian assistance—require a forthcoming North Korean response. In the last week, the administration has again faced the perennial problem of how to deal with short-run obstacles, including the detention of a North Korean fishing vessel that drifted South and a return of the balloon/leaflet issue, a challenge to the North that should not be underestimated and that could well have been the immediate trigger of the cross-border artillery exchanges early in the week. But the South has made a serious proposal; the question is exactly how hostile the North Korean response will be.