SKorea's president-elect faces NKorea uncertainty

AP News
Posted: Dec 20, 2012 5:18 AM
SKorea's president-elect faces NKorea uncertainty

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Park Geun-hye promises to reach out to North Korea with more humanitarian aid and deeper engagement after she moves into the South Korea's presidential Blue House on Feb. 25. Pyongyang, however, may be in no mood to talk anytime soon.

Park's declarations ahead of Wednesday's election that she will soften a hard-line policy that has seen five years of North Korean nuclear and missile tests and bloodshed between the rivals — culminating with last week's condemned rocket launch — rang true with angry voters.

But still-vague promises of aid and engagement, analysts said, won't likely be enough to push Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions, which Washington and Seoul have demanded for true reconciliation to begin.

To reverse the antipathy North Korea has so far shown her and her conservative predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, Park may also need to go further than either her deeply conservative supporters and political allies or a cautious Obama administration will want.

North Korea may quickly test the sincerity of Park's offer to engage — possibly even before she takes office. Pyongyang has repeatedly called her dialogue offers "tricks."

"North Korea is good at applying pressure during South Korean transitions" after presidential elections, said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University in South Korea. "North Korea will do something to try to test, and tame, Park."

Even the last liberal president, Roh Moo-hyun, a champion of no-strings-attached aid to Pyongyang, faced a North Korean short-range missile launch on the eve of his 2003 inauguration.

Ties between the Koreas plummeted during Lee's five-year term, and many voters blame his demand that engagement be accompanied by nuclear disarmament progress. North Korea put its first satellite into space with last week's rocket launch, which the U.N. and others called a cover for a test of banned ballistic missile technology.

Despite the launch, Park says humanitarian aid, including food, medicine and daily goods meant for infants, the sick and other vulnerable people, will flow — though not anything that can be used by North Korea's military. She says she's open to conditional talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The aid won't be as a much North Korea will want, to be sure, and it won't be as much as her liberal challenger in Wednesday's election would have sent. Park's conditions on aid and talks, or anything Pyongyang may see as less than enthusiastic from the Blue House, could also doom talks before they begin.

Pursuing engagement with North Korea "really would have to be her top priority for her to be a game-changing kind of leader on the issue," said John Delury, an analyst at Seoul's Yonsei University. Park, he said, would likely take a more passive, moderate approach.

"In the inter-Korean context, there's not a big difference between a passive approach and a hostile approach," Delury said, "because if you don't take the initiative with North Korea, they'll take the initiative" in the form of provocations meant to raise their profile.

North Korea, despite its rocket launch, didn't cause much of a buzz with South Korean voters more worried about their economic futures and a host of social issues. But it is of deep interest to Washington, Beijing and Tokyo, which had been holding off on pursuing their North Korea policies until South Korean voters chose their new leader.

The next Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is a hawk on North Korea matters who has supported tighter sanctions because of the rocket launch.

U.S. policy toughened after the embarrassing collapse of an aid-for-nuclear-freeze deal with Pyongyang following the North's failed April rocket launch.

Washington could use a new thaw on the Korean Peninsula as a cover to pursue more nuclear disarmament talks, analysts say, but the Obama administration will also likely want a carefully coordinated approach with Seoul toward Pyongyang.

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Park's North Korea policy aims to hold talks meant to build trust and resolve key issues, like the nuclear problem and other security challenges. She'll also provide humanitarian assistance to the North that's not tied to on-going political circumstances, though her camp hasn't settled details, including the amount.

Park also plans to restart joint economic initiatives that were put on hold during the Lee administration as progress occurs on the nuclear issue and after reviewing the projects with lawmakers.

Cynics will say that nothing is likely to work.

Lee's hard-line attempt made little progress. Landmark summits under a decade of liberal governments before Lee took over resulted in lofty statements and photo ops in Pyongyang between Kim Jong Il and South Korean presidents, but did little to change North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

North Korea sees its nuclear programs as necessary defense and leverage in the face of hostility from Washington and Seoul.

Park's statement that she's willing to talk with Kim Jong Un "practically means she's willing to give more money to North Korea," which is Pyongyang's typical demand for dialogue, said Andrei Lankov.

But the heart of the matter — North Korea's nuclear program — might be off limits, regardless of how deep the next Blue House decides to engage.,

"North Korea isn't going to surrender its nukes, they're going to keep them indefinitely," Lankov said. "No amount of bribing or blackmail or begging is going to change it. They are a de facto nuclear power, period, and they are going to stay that way."


AP writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.