Park Geun-hye, the recently elected President of South Korea, is paying her first visit to the United States. The US is the major strategic ally of Seoul, as well as being one of its major trade partners (though South Korea's trade with China now far exceeds its trade with the US).
One should therefore expect that a multitude of political and economic issues will be discussed. However, there is little doubt that policy towards North Korea will become the single most important issue in the coming summit.
Park Geun-hye is the leader of the South Korea's conservative "New Frontier Party". The party has been remarkably supportive of the US-ROK (Republic of Korea) alliance, seeing it as the
cornerstone of South Korea's foreign and defense policy. Nonetheless, general support for the alliance should not obscure the rather serious differences in attitudes toward North Korean issues that exist between Washington and Seoul. Their respective attitudes are, of course, not mutually incompatible but are in many regards different nonetheless.
The major goal of US policy vis-a-vis North Korea is (and has been so since the 1990s) denuclearization. It would be just a minor exaggeration to say that North Korea's nuclear program is the major reason why North Korea is vexing issue that plays on the minds of the Washington establishment.
North Korea is not necessarily seen as a threat in itself - after all, it still lacks reliable delivery systems and probably possesses only a small number of very crude nuclear devices. Nonetheless, Washington justifiably sees North Korea's nuclear program as a dangerous precedent.
There are also widespread fears about North Korea's willingness to sell their expertise to the highest bidder. We should not forget that North Korea was involved in Pakistan's nuclear development, and may have given assistance to both Syria and even Myanmar.
Many people in the US as well as in other Western countries tend to assume that the South Korean public also sees the North Korean nuclear program in the same light - as a grave and present danger, a direct threat to South Korean security. This, after all, seems to be the only logical way of seeing the issue. North Korea has been direct in describing the South Korean government as its mortal enemy. North Korea's long-range missiles may be remarkably unreliable, but Seoul is located just 30 miles (48.2 kilometers) from the North-South border and is therefore far more vulnerable to an attack than Washington.
Such common sense assumptions are, however, remarkably wrong. The average South Korean does not care that much about North Korean nuclear weapons or missiles. While South Korean policy makers occasionally pay lip service to the importance of denuclearization, they are perfectly aware of this popular mood, and in most cases share it.
The average South Korean tends to believe that the North Korean nuclear program is not aimed at Seoul. It widely thought that Pyongyang will never use nuclear weapons against their compatriots in the South (or anyone else for that matter). Rather, they tend to see the North Korean nuclear program as serving two purposes.
First, nuclear weapons serve as a means to extract aid from the outside world. Second, nuclear weapons function as a deterrent against foreign - read: American - invasion. In other words, the South Korean public does not perceive the North Korean nuclear program as an existential threat, or even as something to give serious concern about.
This does not necessarily mean however, that South Koreans are very relaxed about the North. Instead, they are worried about a rather different set of issues.
First of all, the South Korean public does not look kindly upon low-level North Korean military operations - commonly, but somewhat misleadingly known as "military provocations". Such operations are usually staged by the North Koreans as a way to penalize the South Korean government and its people for not paying enough attention (and not providing enough aid) to Pyongyang.
The latest of such provocations were the sinking of a South Korean warship and the bombardment of a South Korean island in 2010. Understandably, the South wants to avoid such clashes as much as possible. When such events occur, South Korean citizens are usually killed, and the South Korean economy usually suffers a minor shock as a result of the adverse publicity created by talk of the imminent threat of war in Korea in the international media.
At the same time, the South Korean public does not want the immediate unification of the two Koreas - in spite of frequent and loud protestations to the contrary. Younger South Koreans have long since come to realize that unification with the North will be very costly, with the them, the South Korean tax-payers, having to pay the near crushing burden of North Korea's economic reconstruction.
While not challenging the idea of unification in principle, these people - a large and fast growing constituency - would much prefer to live in a divided but stable Korean peninsula. They do not care enough about the plight of North Koreans whom they increasingly see as being peoples of a foreign nation.
Therefore, what the South Korean public really wants to see in Korea is essentially a slightly improved version of the status quo. They want Korea to remain divided (without admitting this), but they also want it to be stable. They also would like to see the North's economy grow and its society reform, but this goal is secondary to the almost overriding goal of stability maintenance.
This attitude ensures that South Korea's approach to the North is bound to clash occasionally with the policies of the United States. While the US may favor pressure, sanctions and punishment, the South Korean side is understandably cautious about such a hard line approach. It is usually assumed that excessive zeal in the application of a hard line approach is likely to make North Korea less stable - and this is not what the average South Korean hopes for.
Such an attitude means that the Park administration will win much applause from its voters if it successfully engages North Korea.
The majority of the South Korean public - including a considerable part of more right-leaning voters - feels disappointed about the results produced by the policies of president Lee Myung-bak (Park's predecessor).
When in 2008 Lee was elected, he challenged the soft line taken by his left-leaning processor whose "Sunshine policy" meant the North got unilateral and unconditional aid. President Lee attempted to make such aid conditional, but he failed. When North Korea faced demands for political concessions in exchange for the continuance of aid, it usually refused to oblige, and frequently discontinued a particular cooperation project. As a result, the relations between the two Koreas reached the lowest point in 20 years.
The South Korean public want Park to try a different approach, which can best be described as a lighter and cheaper version of the Sunshine policy. Such policies will mean a significant increase in direct and indirect aid to Pyongyang.
A few years ago, such an idea might have been anathema to a significant number of South Koreans. However, after five years of Lee's hardline stance, things have changed. The average South Korean is not all that supportive of unconditional aid to the North, nonetheless understands well that the alternative is likely to be even more costly. South Korean voters therefore have come to believe that aid to the North constitutes a necessary evil, essentially it is the price for maintaining stability and the status quo on the Korean peninsula.
Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at Kookmin University, Seoul.
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