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     Sep 16, 2011

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A turning point on the Korean Peninsula?
By Aidan Foster-Carter

Late on the evening of August 30, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, as part of a mini-reshuffle affecting four cabinet positions, finally replaced his long-term hardline unification minister, former academic Hyun In-taek. With Lee's characteristic cronyism, the man nominated to replace Hyun was another of his close advisers - geography professor Yu Woo-ik, once Lee's chief of staff in the Blue House and latterly South Korea's ambassador to China.

Despite the usual pro forma insistence that this does not mean any change of policy - Hyun was retained, notionally, as a special adviser on unification - the Seoul press was unanimous that this

appointment signals a shift in strategy or tactics toward the North for the final third of Lee's term of office.

Elected on December 19, 2007 and in post since February 25, 2008, Lee is restricted to a single five-year term. That stipulation in the Constitution of the Sixth Republic, promulgated with the restoration of democracy in 1987, was meant to prevent any would-be dictators from prolonging their stay in office ad infinitum, as military strongman Park Chung-hee (1961-79) did with his Yushin constitution in 1972 (the Fourth Republic).

But perhaps the democrats went too far. In some ways South Korea's presidency remains too strong. Thus it is the president who appoints the cabinet, and except for the prime minister, the National Assembly's approval is not required. Yet these imperial powers last a mere five years - or in practice less, since the electoral cycle creates its own structural pressures.

In modern media-driven democracies, political campaigning has become quasi-permanent. Thus Republic of Korea (ROK) presidents must struggle to avoid becoming a lame duck as their five years draw toward a close, and attention increasingly shifts to the race to succeed them. Many in Seoul favor a shift to a US-style system: presidential elections every four years instead of five, but permitting a second term so as to avoid the lame duck effect.

An added advantage is that this would align presidential elections with parliamentary ones, which are on a separate four-year cycle. Such a change in theory has wide bipartisan support, and now would have been the ideal time to make the shift since next year the two elections almost coincide with parliamentary in April, followed by presidential in December. But bad blood between the two main parties - Lee's conservative ruling Grand National Party (GNP), and the liberal opposition Democrats (DP) - means that it is almost certainly too late now for this time around.

Electoral rebuff
This excursus is not a digression. For better or worse, electoral calculation was probably a major factor in Hyun's ouster and will drive whatever policy shifts may follow. The straws had been in the wind for some time. In by-elections on April 27, the ruling party won only one of the four seats up for grabs. It was especially shocked when Sohn Hak-kyu, the moderate (indeed ex-GNP) and electable-looking newish head of the DP, snatched a seat in wealthy Bundang, just south of Seoul, which had never voted other than conservative before.

As is the way in South Korea (but emphatically not in the North), the GNP leadership fell on their swords to take responsibility for the defeat. Moreover, in electing their successors the party faithful delivered a further blow of their own to the embattled president. Repudiating his faction - or rather factions, for even Lee's supporters were divided - on July 4, they voted for a maverick and outspoken backbencher, Hong Joon-pyo, as the party's new chairman.

Hong lost no time in distancing himself from some cherished policies (such as tax cuts) of a president whom he characterized as "good at everything ... but bad at politics". Specifically, he called for a fresh approach to North Korea. By August 29, amid rumors of an impending mini-reshuffle, Hong let it be known via a well-placed press leak that at a breakfast meeting with President Lee he had pushed "strongly" for a change of unification minister, since Hyun In-taek was so firmly identified as a hard-liner. Hyun was sacked the next day; read on.

The Cheonan's legacy lingers
Also in play is the lingering legacy of last year's twin Northern attacks on the South - the sinking of the corvette Cheonan in March and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November. These events left Lee wounded on several fronts. Both assaults exposed failures in the ROK's defenses.

Lee's failure to retaliate forcefully, while prudent, laid him open to charges of weakness. (Heaven help us if Pyongyang should try it a third time; it would be political suicide were Lee again to hold his fire, but a risk of national suicide if he blasts back with all barrels.)

Some also drew wider policy lessons. Many in the DP and those further left - who are not a negligible force in the ROK - blamed Lee for provoking Pyongyang by his hard line. Upon coming to office, and despite promising a pragmatic approach, Lee at once repudiated the economic cooperation agreed by his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun at the second Pyongyang summit in October 2007. In this writer's view, as readers of past issues will know, this was regrettable since the new plans were no longer one-sided aid, but potentially win-win.

All this is of course a matter of judgment, and no excuse for the DPRK's vile aggression. But we knew the nature of the beast of old. The question is, what works? After three and a half years, Lee Myung-bak's strict conditionality - no serious aid unless Kim Jong-il gives up his nuclear weapons, something which almost no analyst believes he will ever really do however logical and fair in theory - has neither advanced inter-Korean relations nor rendered the peninsula a safer place. So it is hardly surprising that Lee is now rethinking his approach even if his motives - and that of his party - for doing so are more self-serving than strategic.

Below the surface
But we risk running ahead. A whole tetramester elapsed before Lee's U-turn, if such it be, so there are other events to record first. As always, this narrative account barely scratches the surface. I do hope that readers, even if pressed for time, will also delve into the granularity - to use a management buzzword - afforded by the chronology.

Even now, despite the poor state of inter-Korean relations in the main, below the surface all manner of varied pond life continues to dart about. For instance, it was established that North Koreans are entitled to sue in South Korean courts for their share of the inheritance of a parent who had fled to the South and remarried. That matters, both now and especially in the future.

Chronologically, in the month of May - as we now know, but didn't at the time - there was more going on than met the eye. President Lee spent a week (May 8-14) visiting Germany, Denmark, and France. In Berlin, a major theme was about sharing ideas and experience on reunification.

This predictably infuriated North Korea, whose Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 16 lambasted "traitor Lee Myung-bak" for his "daydream of 'emerging a victor' in the confrontation of systems". Lee publicly invited, or perhaps challenged, Kim Jong-il to come to the second global Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), which Seoul is due to host next March. There was just one small condition: North Korea must commit itself to denuclearization and apologize for the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents.

Begging for it?
It was hard to see this offer as serious. But in fact there was more going on below the surface. On June 1, Pyongyang chose to reveal, in detail, what had long been suspected. Despite harsh words in public, behind the scenes the two Koreas had held secret talks. Indeed, the North claimed it was the South that since April had "begged" for talks, which were eventually held in Beijing from May 9.

They named the ROK officials involved as Kim Chun-sig of the Ministry of Unification's (MOU) Policy Office; Hong Chang-hwa, a director of the National Intelligence Service (NIS); and President Lee's deputy national security advisor, Kim Tae-hyo. In implicit corroboration, all three switched off their mobile phones and went to ground as soon as the story broke in Seoul, too much embarrassment all round.

The North's version, attributed to a spokesman for its National Defense Commission (NDC) - the DPRK's top executive body - was typically irate in tone. Inter alia it accused "the Lee Myung-bak group of traitors" of being "master hands at fabrications as they cook up lies and deny what they have done and hooligans who renege on the promises made to the nation like a pair of old shoes".

Besides the insults, it went into detail on both the niceties of discussion and what the South was allegedly seeking. By this account, Seoul wanted a form of words that it could present as an apology for the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong, even if Pyongyang would deny making any such apology. This would have cleared the way for a three-stage series of meetings: first at the border village of Panmunjom in late June, then in Pyongyang two months later (ie, late August), and finally after quite a gap in Seoul in March next year when the ROK will host the second global Nuclear Security Summit (NSS).

Clearly it would be a huge coup if Kim Jong-il could be persuaded not only to come South at all, as he has never done, but to do so for the NSS where, presumably, he would renounce nuclear weapons and promise to be a good boy in the future, in exchange for a very fat check.

The whole idea is so ludicrous that one can only marvel at the Lee administration's endless capacity for fantasy and self-deception in its Nordpolitik. Nothing whatever in DPRK policy suggests there was the remotest chance of Kim Jong-il doing anything of the kind. Why on earth would he choose to boost a lame duck Southern president, when a year and a half from now the next incumbent of the Blue House will undoubtedly prove more accommodating?

A lesson from Libya
Also the timing could not have been worse. The only recent precedent for such a voluntary abjuration and surrender of WMD, which indeed used to be urged upon Kim Jong-il as an exemplar to follow, is Libya; enough said. Given the turn of events in that country weeks before the ROK's secret initiative, North Korea had not only drawn but uttered precisely the lesson one would expect them to, in this DPRK Foreign Ministry diatribe on March 22:
It was fully exposed before the world that "Libya's nuclear dismantlement" much touted by the US in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as "guarantee of security" and "improvement of relations" to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force.

It proved once again the truth of history that peace can be preserved only when one builds up one's own strength as long as high-handed and arbitrary practices go on in the world. The DPRK was quite just when it took the path of Songun and the military capacity for self-defence built up in this course serves as a very valuable deterrent for averting a war and defending peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.
One does rather wonder what prompted Pyongyang to play ball at all, unless they intended all along to do the dirty and spill the beans. The latter ran to a second installment on June 9 in response to Seoul's reaction, which was not to deny the talks but to claim, au contraire, that it was the North which had begged for them. By now in a towering faux rage, the NDC threatened to publish transcripts to prove its version was correct.

Seoul professed not to know that the talks had been recorded, yet it is hardly surprising if they were.

The North also amplified a reference in its earlier statement to the South offering "enveloped money", ie, a bribe. (The South vaguely admitted offering to cover board and lodging costs for preliminary talks.) Such a charge is of course rank hypocrisy. Earlier North-South talks, in particular those that led to the first summit in 2000, saw Pyongyang blatantly demanding to be paid under the table. Regrettably Seoul complied, setting a bad precedent. 

Continued 1 2  

Grand bargaining reloaded?
(Aug 31, '11)

Pipeline politics in Kim's Russia visit
(Aug 22, '11)



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