Saturday, February 23, 2013

Park Geun-hye Takes the Reigns

This is pretty good overview of the challenges that President Park faces as she takes office this week.  There is also some wishful thinking on the author's part (though I too wish for many of the same things, I am probably not as optimistic as the author).

February 23, 2013
By Gregg Brazinsky

Park enters office in South Korea facing a daunting array of domestic and foreign policy challenges. She may very well prove up to the task.

The challenges that will face newly elected South Korean president Park Geun-hye when she takes office are daunting. She is the first woman to lead what has been one of the world’s mostmale-dominated governments. She must contend with the controversial legacy of her father, Park Chung Hee, a long-ruling dictator revered as the driving force behind South Korea’s economic miracle but reviled for brutally suppressing the opposition. And she must keep the nation safe and prosperous in an era of escalating regional tensions and financial turmoil. Should she fail at any of these tasks, she will have to contend with a notoriously unforgiving political culture. None of her four democratically elected predecessors left office with a high approval rating.

While the new president’s mettle will unquestionably be tested, there are reasons to believe that she can rise to the challenge. Great leaders confront difficulties with equanimity and make the bold moves necessary to break through obstacles to change.  Park has already demonstrated these abilities in the arena of domestic politics. After first being elected to the National Assembly in 1998, she repeatedly trounced her opponents at the ballot box and eventually rose to a position of leadership in the ruling Saenuri Party (formerly known as the Grand National Party). During election years when her party was mired in scandal and the opposition seemed poised to make significant gains, Park engineered surprising victories at the polls that enabled the conservatives to retain power. These impressive performances led the South Korean media to call her “The Queen of Elections.”
Throughout Park’s rise to the top she has gracefully weathered personal attacks, maintaining an almost unflappable demeanor. The success of Park’s presidency will hinge on whether she can transfer her consummate skills as a politician to the realm of policymaking.

In the international arena, Park’s most pressing challenge will be the ever-intractable regime in Pyongyang. The country’s enigmatic leader Kim Jong-un has made clear his determination to remain a thorn in the side of both Seoul and Washington. If the ROK does not act quickly, Pyongyang’s saber rattling will threaten not only the stability of the Korean peninsula, but also all of Northeast Asia.
As president, Park plans to tackle the North Korea problem by pursuing what she has called “trustpolitik,” meaning the establishment of “mutually binding expectations based on global norms.” Since the end of the Cold War the pendulum of South Korean policy toward its northern rival has swung back and forth between engagement and containment with neither approach producing meaningful change. Park has sensibly called for a more strategic mixing of sticks and carrots that will encourage good behavior and deter aggression.     

Is there any reason to believe that Park can succeed where her predecessors have failed so ignominiously? Perhaps. Conservative political leaders who seek rapprochement with rival governments while maintaining a credible deterrent are sometimes more successful at achieving meaningful reconciliation than their progressive opponents. After all, it took Richard Nixon, who rose to national prominence as an anti-Communist Congressman, to go to China in 1972.

The best chance for bringing Pyongyang to the negotiating table and keeping it there probably lies in a similar combination of deterrence and engagement. Changing the mindset of North Korea’s leaders is far beyond the capabilities of any South Korean president. But there is always the possibility that Pyongyang — like Beijing and Hanoi — will one day acknowledge that greater engagement with the rest of the world serves its interests more than isolationism and militarism. If and when it does so, a consistent and pragmatic approach like the one that Park advocates will have the best chance of encouraging the DPRK’s peaceful evolution while minimizing backtracking.    

Rising tensions between China and Japan represent another potential danger for Park Geun-hye’s government. Koreans have long used an old adage to describe the impact of conflicts among their larger neighbors on the peninsula: When whales fight the shrimp gets crushed. Seoul has good reason to fear that this proverb will again prove relevant should Beijing and Tokyo come to blows over the disputed Diaoyu-Senkaku islands. The last time China and Japan forces clashed in the East China Sea was during the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 — a conflict in which Korea suffered even though it was not a combatant. During the war, Japan formally wrested Korea from China’s control but not before military engagements left Pyongyang and other Korean cities significantly damaged.       

For President Park, relations with China and Japan present a nettlesome quandary that will require her to strike a careful balance in her foreign policy. Popular sentiment will undoubtedly complicate the issue. On the one hand, Koreans have their own territorial dispute with Japan over Dokdo-Takeshima and, like the Chinese, have bitter memories of Japanese expansionism during World War II. On the other, Japan and South Korea are both important allies of the United States that share a common set of democratic values.  They are also both wary of China’s ambitions to assert itself as a regional power.
And yet President Park is not without leverage when it comes to handling this delicate situation. South Korea may not be the most powerful or wealthiest nation in the Pacific but it is among the most trusted. It has no history of territorial aggrandizement or hegemonic ambitions and is admired for its vibrant economy and dynamic popular culture. As a result, Seoul punches above its weight in international organizations. The key will be converting these assets into tangible achievements in trilateral relations.
(Continued at the link below)

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