Page 1 of 2 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.