Special Forum Issue

“South Korea in the Hot Seat, 2013-2015”

A Trustpolitik approach to denuclearization and unification

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Ever since the Korean War, North Korea has posed the most menacing and intractable national security challenge to the South. Every South Korean leader has tried to reduce the danger; few had any success to show for their efforts. Yet each new president saw no alternative but to keep trying. When Park Geun-hye began her presidency on February 25, 2013, the South was at one of the lowest points with the North. After the North had conducted two previous nuclear weapons tests during her conservative predecessor Lee Myung-bak’s presidency, a third test was conducted just weeks before her inauguration, and it had also carried out two fatal attacks against South Korea in 2010 that left 50 South Korean casualties. The North Korean sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan on March 26 killed 46 South Korean sailors and the North Korean shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island on November 23 caused widespread damage and killed four and injured 19 South Korean civilians. No foreign policy decision would be more important than how Park dealt with North Korea after Lee’s inability to revive talks.

Following the limited success of Lee Myung-bak’s approach to North Korea, Park sought to tack back to the center on North Korea policy during her electoral campaign. Several years earlier, in a September/October 2011 Foreign Affairs article, when she was still a presidential candidate, Park laid out what would be her administration’s new approach to North Korea. In the article titled “A New Kind of Korea: Building Trust Between Seoul and Pyongyang,” Park laid out the theoretical and historical context of what she called “trustpolitik” between the two Koreas. More of a catchy slogan rather than a detailed policy, it nevertheless signaled a desire to build confidence and mend fences with the North. She wrote that “lack of trust has long undermined attempts at genuine reconciliation between North and South Korea,” and added that, “in order to transform the Korean Peninsula from a zone of conflict into a zone of trust,” South Korea should adopt a policy of “trustpolitik” and an “alignment policy,” which should remain constant in the face of political transitions and unexpected domestic or international events.1

This policy would not mean adopting a middle-of-the road approach, she explained; “trustpolitik” and the alignment policy would entail assuming a tough line against North Korea sometimes (for example, if North Korea launched a military strike) and a flexible policy open to negotiations at other times (if North Korea took steps toward reconciliation).2 In the aftermath of Park’s Foreign Affairs article, which got a fair amount of attention, policymakers and academics across the political spectrum in both Seoul and Washington pondered how this concept would be translated into actual policy should she become president.

As she campaigned throughout 2012, Park continued to move beyond the more hawkish rhetoric of her fellow conservatives and her predecessor, under whom there had been little economic or diplomatic contact between the two Koreas. While she would not engage with the North to the same extent as the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations did, unlike Lee, Park said she would not hold engagement hostage to prior actions by Pyongyang. Rather, she promised in her campaign that she would reengage with, and build trust with, the North by first taking small steps such as resuming the aid that Lee had suspended and exchange humanitarian assistance for family reunions. If these steps proved successful, the two Koreas could move on to more ambitious, large-scale exchanges such as lifting of the sanctions implemented in response to the sinking of Cheonan, an expansion of economic processing zones such as Kaesong, and investment by larger-scale South Korean firms. Park also suggested a possibility of a summit meeting with the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. This kind of rhetoric was not without risk for her since, beyond the younger generation, a significant part of her voting base was still deeply conservative, with strong anti-communist ideological beliefs.

Putting flesh on the flagship policy of “trustpolitik” and alignment proved to be a complex endeavor, however. Despite Park’s rhetoric of building trust between the two Koreas, the nuclear test two weeks before her inauguration—the first under its new leader—likely was Kim Jong-un’s way of reminding the public and the incoming administration—as well as the Obama administration—about the negative consequences of adopting a hardline stance towards Pyongyang. The underground nuclear test followed weeks of threats from the North to build up its nuclear capacity and carry out an “all-out action of high intensity” and two months after the North sent a log-range rocket into orbit.3 By conducting the nuclear test just days before Park came into the office, Kim had certainly grabbed Park’s attention.

Park’s North Korea Policy in 2013: “Trustpolitik,” Alignment, and Focus on China

When Park came into the office, inter-Korea tensions were growing. The latest nuclear test led to further expansion and tightening of international sanctions against the North. Two United Nations Security Council resolutions in quick succession—Resolution 2087 in January, which condemned the December 2012 satellite launch, and Resolution 2094 in March in response to the February 12 nuclear test—extended sanctions to more monitoring of North Korea’s cargoes, diplomats, banks, and organizations. Banned luxury items were itemized for the first time. US B-2 stealth bombers were deployed for the first time as part of Foal Eagle, a joint military drill and training exercise with South Korea in March.

Predictably, the North responded to this pressure with further provocations, which included specific threats to abrogate both the 1953 armistice treaty, which ended the Korean War, and inter-Korean non-aggression pacts, as well as launching more missiles and ordering all of its missiles and artillery units to be on the “highest alert.”4 These actions were accompanied by cyberattacks on major South Korean broadcasters and banks and cutting off its last remaining military hotlines with Seoul in late March—a link that had been useful in running the North-South joint venture, the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC).

The KIC, located inside North Korea just across the demilitarized zone, was launched in 2004 and largely financed by the South to increase cooperation with the North. It was one of the last remaining points of engagement between the two Koreas, in which the South Korean companies could manufacture their products using North Korean labor. For the North, it was an important source of hard currency. Income from the KIC generated around $90 to $120 million a year for North Koreans employed there and shutting it down would affect the lives of 200,000 to 300,000 North Koreans living in the area.5  The previous time the North cut the link was in 2009, when many South Korean workers were temporarily stranded in the North. The North perversely followed through its threat and subsequently withdrew all of its 53,000 workers from the KIC and declared that it would “temporarily suspend the operations in the zone and examine the issue of whether it will allow its existence or close it,” making it clear that the final decision would depend on the Park administration’s attitude going forward. The North was seeking to use the KIC’s future to pressure Seoul for further political concessions.

Amid escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Park continued her focus on building “trust” and the “alignment policy,” calling for both strengthening deterrence and staying steady against Pyongyang while reiterating that the South remained open to dialogue. Park also continued to provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea. Park’s “trustpolitik” approach led to some progress when the North and South eventually reached an agreement in mid-August, which led to the reopening of Kaesong and an agreement for further joint North-South economic activity. The door also opened to institutionalizing North-South activity through the creation of a joint committee to oversee the operations of firms located in the Kaesong Industrial Zone; it would be responsible for adjudicating disputes, protecting corporate properties, and working out compensation damages to such properties. More importantly, the Kaesong agreement stated that the two Koreas will actively work to attract foreign businesses to Kaesong. The Kaesong agreement also raised the possibility of reopening inter-Korean railway traffic.

Meanwhile, Park’s “trustpolitik” policy had a China component, which was based on the premise that the road to Pyongyang was through Beijing and that improved relations with China could lead to improved relations with North Korea. Eager to make headway with China, Park visited Beijing in June, her second overseas trip following her visit to the Washington earlier in May. In 2013, the total trade volume between China and South Korea reached over $270 billion, which was more than the value of South Korea-US and South Korea-Japan trade combined.6 Nevertheless, Park’s decision to travel to China before going to Japan broke with precedent, reflecting not only the importance of China as South Korea’s top trading partner but seeing China as an important partner in dealing with North Korea. Her predecessor Lee Myung-bak, for example, had stopped in Japan on his way home after visiting the US as his first overseas destination in April 2008; his first presidential trip to China came one month later.  

The subsequent Beijing-Seoul summit was seen as a high point in their bilateral relations, with Xi Jinping and Park displaying strong personal rapport for one another. With her self-taught mandarin and interest in Chinese culture and philosophy, Park enjoyed a warm welcome in Beijing. Park even delivered a public speech entirely in Mandarin, and the Chinese and South Korean media gushed, calling it “an unprecedented honeymoon” period for China and South Korea.7 Xi and Park pledged to expand cooperation in all sectors, including in Park’s “trust-building” approach in dealing with North Korea.

After six months in office, the South Korean public approved of Park’s approach towards North Korea; polls showed approval over 50% of her foreign policy approach, some showing over 60%, and even 70% when it came to Park’s North Korea policy.8 Such a positive reception for Park’s North Korea policy was due to the fact that the Park administration appeared to maintain a firm and resolute deterrence even in the face of unrelenting provocations from the North. Park also pulled off a series of successful diplomatic achievements through summit meetings with the US and China and Russia, as well as regional and global meetings. Park continued to travel for the rest of the year, participating in APEC, ASEAN, EAS and G20 summits, while holding 10 summit meetings abroad with leaders of other countries.

Moreover, “trustpolitik” as a concept managed to gain broad support because the public saw Park’s policy as one that seemed realistic and balanced with a potential to overcome the South’s difficult relationship with the North. The public saw it as representing a middle way between the unreciprocated generosity of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun’s Sunshine Policy of 1998-2007 and the subsequent hardline policy taken by Lee Myung-bak, which led to a worsening of inter-Korean relations. Key global leaders and experts, including then-Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, gave their enthusiastic endorsement, which had been reaffirmed in Park’s meetings with both US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Throughout the remainder of the year, Park reiterated that the goal of “trustpolitik” was to transform South Korea’s policy towards North Korea. Whereas the policies of the past administrations had gone from one extreme to another, Park’s approach was presented as a more effective and balanced combination of competing policy options. The public broadly supported the idea of pressure and dialogue, deterrence and cooperation, while separating humanitarian issues from those related to politics and security. It was a policy that promised the South to be strong when there was a need to be firm against the North yet flexible when there is a need to be more receptive. Yet Park’s North Korea policy bore little fruit as 2013 came to an end beyond the reopening of KIC. Of course, the problem was that the KIC issue was only temporarily resolved. Having shut down the KIC once, there was no mechanism that insured that the North would not do it again.

In late September 2013, the North abruptly canceled planned family reunions, accusing South Korea’s conservatives of a “reckless and vicious confrontational racket.”9 The North had a laundry list of grievances, including accusing the Park government of provoking the North by telling South Korean people that Pyongyang had been forced to make its recent conciliatory gestures because of Park’s strong stance. The North also protested over a South Korean scandal involving a leftist politician who was accused of plotting to overthrow the Seoul government in case of a conflict with the North, calling it a “witch hunt” to crack down on people championing cooperation with the North.10 In typical fashion, the North sought to shift the onus of resumption of the reunions back on the South, claiming that the visits were to be postponed until “a normal atmosphere is created” for constructive dialogue. It became soon evident that the family reunions were part of the North Korean quid-pro-quo for the reopening of Kaesong. Kaesong’s operations had resumed, but with the family reunions in abeyance, the Park administration was left empty-handed. The North also announced that it would postpone talks on reopening tours for South Koreans at Mount Kumgang–the location where a South Korean tourist was shot by a North Korean soldier in 2008 for allegedly walking into an off-limits area.

By the time 2013 ended, the only other positive North Korea-related news occurred during Park’s second meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in November, when she hosted him in Seoul. The two leaders agreed to increase economic cooperation, such as a Russian-led project to develop a North Korean border port as a gateway for exports at the end of the 54-kilometer Rajin-Khasan railway link from North Korea to Siberia. Optimism about improving relations with North Korea had faded.  Kim closed the year by shocking the world with the brutal execution of his uncle, Jang Song-taek. Jang was the second most powerful man in North Korea, presumed mentor to Kim, and the main intermediary with China. Jang’s execution fueled speculation about further strains in Beijing-Pyongyang relations.11

Park’s North Korea Policy in 2014: Pivot to Unification

Early in 2014, it became evident that Park had added Korean unification as a central tenet of her North Korea strategy. As she sought a “trustpolitik” approach towards the North to defuse tensions and improve bilateral relations, she also made unification a tangible short-term goal, rather than a long-term, theoretical objective as her predecessors had done. In his January 1 New Year’s address, Kim Jong-un announced that regarding inter-Korean relations, “new progress must be made for the unification of the motherland,” in accordance with the wishes of his father and grandfather. In her January 6 news conference, Park took this opportunity to promote her vision of unification, stating that “building the foundation for an era of unification” is one of the two major tasks of her administration in 2014. Calling unification, a “jackpot” (daebak) for Korea, she declared that the key policy task was “laying a foundation for peaceful unification.” She said she would promote policies to strengthen humanitarian aid and expand civic exchanges.

 Park’s two-track approach involved implementing a new “Tailored Deterrence Strategy” in military exercises with the US and conducting South Korea’s own missile tests while calling for “trust-building” initiatives and pushing for unification. When she visited the former East German city of Dresden in March, she further expanded on the theme of unification while seeking to regularize family reunions and expand humanitarian aid, economic cooperation, and inter-Korean integration. In an address titled, “An Initiative for Peaceful Unification on the Korean Peninsula,” she talked of the need for the Koreans to tear down barriers to unification as the Germans tore down the Berlin Wall. She talked of the two Koreas tearing down a “wall of military confrontation,” “a wall of distrust,” and a “socio-cultural wall” that divides the Korean Peninsula.12

She vowed to find concrete ways to promote these objectives, beginning with allowing regular reunions for separated families. She also reiterated wanting to expand humanitarian assistance to North Korean people, providing health care to pregnant mothers and infants, and building infrastructure in areas such as transportation and telecommunication. She talked of collaborating with the North to set up multi-farming complexes that support agriculture and forestry. She floated the idea of combining South Korean capital and technology with North Korean resources and labor.13

The reaction to Park calling unification a “jackpot” was mixed in South Korea. There was a clear generational and ideological divide in the public’s responses. Skepticism was more pronounced among the younger generation. 47.6% of the public who were polled agreed with Park’s Dresden statement and proposal, while 37.4% disagreed. 65.5% of self-identified conservatives agreed with Park while only 37.8% of those who identified themselves as progressives did; progressives younger than 40 years reacted most negatively, concerned, as they were, with the financial implications of unification.14 75% of respondents in their 20s were pessimistic about the personal financial implications of unification.15

Predictably, Park’s unification proposal was met by a vitriolic response from Pyongyang, which rejected Park’s Dresden Declaration, calling it “an unpardonable insult” and declaring that Seoul should stop having unrealistic dreams about unification.16 The Kim regime sought to portray Park’s unification efforts as attempts to push “unification by absorption.” A statement published by the Korean Central News Agency argued that the venue of Park’s speech—Dresden, Germany—testified to Park’s “impure ulterior motive” since Germany is a country that was unified by absorption. The press statement went on to insist that the “Dresden Declaration” is an “anti-reunification nonsense” “overlooking the interests of the country and nation.”17

From Kim’s perspective, this reaction could be foreseen. It is hard to avoid the obvious question: Since any discussion of unification would realistically presume that the peninsula would end up a capitalist democracy, why would the Kim regime negotiate itself out of existence? The North’s responses to Park’s proposals were thus to continue to escalate tensions throughout the year. Although the North allowed the postponed family reunions to finally take place in February—the first since November 2010—it responded to the annual US-ROK military exercises held from February through April and Obama’s visit to Seoul in April with more missile launches, along with threats to conduct a “new form” of nuclear test. The North threatened Seoul with a “nuclear disaster” while calling for Seoul to take practical steps to end “all hostile military acts.” In April, the North even descended to unprecedented levels of personal insult by describing Park as a “repulsive wench” and “crafty prostitute,” who had failed to marry or bear children.18 It then lobbed off more than 500 artillery rounds offshore, landing more than 100 in South Korea’s waters. In early May, new commercial satellite imagery showed that the North was expanding its main rocket-launching site and testing engines of what is believed to be its first road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile.

Park’s response was to continue her “principled and effective two-track approach” of pressure and dialogue for denuclearization, now pushing for unification, while continuing to ask China for help. Park and Xi met again on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands on March 23, which was followed by telephone talks a month later. On April 10, China’s Premier Li Keqiang and South Korea’s Prime Minister Jung Hong-won met on the sidelines of the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan, while foreign ministers Wang Yi and Yun Byung-se held periodic telephone talks on peninsula tensions. In early July, Xi visited Seoul, marking the first time that a Chinese leader visited Seoul without having first visited Pyongyang. In contrast, in the almost three years since assuming power, Kim had yet to host Xi or visit China himself. Beijing-Pyongyang contacts had been limited to low-level visits, reflecting continued strain in the bilateral relationship. The highest-level meeting in early 2014 occurred between Xi and North Korean President Kim Yong-nam on the sidelines of the Sochi Winter Olympics.  

Yet, while the unprecedented Chinese gesture to visit Seoul first elevated South Korea’s hopes for a change in China’s overall North Korea policy, enthusiasm quickly turned to disappointment when China remained opposed to including an explicit statement on the denuclearization of North Korea in the summit joint statement. There appeared to be a clear misperception on Park’s part vis-à-vis China—despite a honeymoon period between Seoul and Beijing fostered by Park and Xi, and despite the unprecedented summits and gestures of friendship, South Korea’s expanding ties with China did not ultimately signify an emerging shift in Beijing’s North Korea policy.

For South Korea, China has become an important economic partner, and cultivating and deepening ties with China has become an important policy objective. But another major impetus for Park to engage with China was that she badly needed China for her North Korea policy: Park sought Chinese cooperation in resolving the nuclear standoff with North Korea and achieving unification, and Xi’s chilly relations with Kim Jong-un provided an opening for warmer relations between Seoul and Washington. But what Park did not grasp at the time was that Beijing’s changed attitude largely stemmed from its deep frustration with Pyongyang and was not indicative of a larger shift in Beijing’s North Korea policy. Rather, China’s strategy seemed to have been to take advantage of the then relatively weak Sino-North Korean relationship to win over South Korea—without giving up its core geostrategic interest in North Korea. Thus, despite Park’s efforts to secure cooperation with China on a strategy that emphasizes both pressure and dialogue, tensions with the North continued unabated throughout the year, and China proved to be little help on the North Korea front.

By 2014, the North had conducted three nuclear tests and over 100 missile tests and made substantial progress in making nuclear weapons smaller and lighter. South Korea’s Defense White Paper in 2014 stated that North Korea had achieved miniaturization and estimated that its nuclear bombs could be loaded onto missiles. In October, there was a brief mini-détente when the two Koreas held their highest-level talks in years; the North sent a high-caliber delegation and a team of athletes to the South to attend the Asian Games. But yet again, although the two sides agreed to more meetings later in October or November, North Korea backed off, citing activists’ leaflet campaigns in South Korea. By November, North Korea threatened to conduct a fourth nuclear test after the UN Human Rights Committee referred North Korea to the International Criminal Court for human rights abuses.

Park’s North Korea Policy in 2015: Doubling Down on Trustpolitik and Unification

The year 2015, which marked the 70th anniversary of the division of the Korean Peninsula and liberation from Japanese occupation, began with a bit of hope that North Korea sought to resurrect inter-Korea ties. Kim Jong-un declared in his 2015 New Year’s Day speech that it was possible to “resume the suspended high-level contacts and hold sectoral talks if the South Korean authorities are sincere in their stand towards improving inter-Korean relations through dialogue.”19 Kim added that “there is no reason why we should not hold a summit meeting if the atmosphere and environment for it are created,” while insisting that a prerequisite for dialogue would be ending the US-ROK combined military exercises.20 The North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Nations also suggested that “many things were possible” if the joint military exercises were cancelled.21

When the joint exercises were not cancelled, any hope of improved inter-Korean relations and a diplomatic resolution dissolved. The Kim regime shifted from its temporary charm offensive and threatened to wage a “merciless, sacred war” against the US. As for the South, the North declared that it was “only too apparent that no major change or transformation could be achieved in inter-Korean relations even if we were to sit down a thousand times with such government officials.”22 Pyongyang conducted military exercises designed to attack a U.S. aircraft carrier with Kim present. On February 6, it test-fired an anti-ship cruise missile on its newly-displayed stealth fast patrol craft and, two days later, fired five missiles off the coast of Wonsan towards the East Sea.23 When the US-ROK joint exercises commenced on March 2, the North fired two short-range ballistic missiles in protest. On March 3, Li Soo-yong, North Korea’s minister of foreign affairs, expressed an intention to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the US in an address at the UN Human Rights Council on Geneva.24

Park’s response was to continue to carry on the previous year’s unification campaign as the showpiece of her North Korea policy. She doubled down on her dual track approach of deterrence and engagement. The government said early in the year that it was seeking to spur efforts in 2015 to bring about reunification by establishing a legal and institutional framework and holding joint economic and cultural events. Indeed, various measures were submitted to Park jointly by the ministries of unification, foreign affairs, national defense, and patriots and veteran affairs to prepare for unification.25 Various policy ideas were promoted: setting up inter-Korean cultural institutes in both Seoul and Pyongyang, forming a joint committee to run joint cultural, arts, sports, and religious events marking the 70th anniversary of liberation, test-running a railway from Seoul to Sinuiju or Rajin via Pyongyang, building joint economic infrastructure and intensifying cooperation in people’s livelihoods, environment, and culture. As Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said at a news conference, the Park government had set 2015 as the year “to usher in an era of unification, and our goal is to make substantive progress in unification preparations.”26 The Park government further vowed to intensify collaboration, partnering with the private sector and the international community to push the unification agenda.

Despite Park’s calls for the North to accept her offer of “any form of dialogue” to work towards unification, North Korea’s response was to continue making a series of demands, including that Seoul lift sanctions that had been in effect since May 24, 2010, following North Korean attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyong Island. It also continued to launch ballistic missiles. After testing five short-range ballistic missiles in early February, in early May it successfully launched a ballistic missile which it claimed came from a submarine (experts later assessed that the missile was launched from a submerged barge).27

In August, a potential crisis loomed when North Korean soldiers sneaked across the DMZ and planted landmines on the South Korean side, maiming two South Korean soldiers. In response, Seoul resumed propaganda broadcasts along the DMZ, which led to an exchange of artillery fire, raising the potential for a broader military clash. Seoul and Pyongyang were able to subsequently reach a vaguely worded agreement to defuse tensions with that allowed both to claim they had achieved what they wanted.

The Park administration agreed to turn off the loudspeakers that had angered Pyongyang and promised it would not resume the broadcasts “unless an abnormal case occurs.”28 It then tried to showcase this agreement as a win for South Korea, even though the North’s expression of regret fell short of full-throated apology.  Park’s defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, called the North’s willingness to express regret “very meaningful.”29 The Kim regime, meanwhile, agreed to suspend its “quasi-state of war” and allowed resumption of separated family reunions.30 The North’s subsequent decisions to engage in senior-level talks with South Korea and send Kim Jong-un’s personal girl band, Moranbong, to perform in Beijing appeared to suggest that improvement in inter-Korean relations before the end of the year might be possible. Meanwhile, Park continued to press on with her efforts to get Beijing on board with her North Korea policy. In September, Park traveled to Beijing to attend events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in an event boycotted by most Western leaders. Park was criticized for attending the parade extolling China’s military forces, particularly given that China intervened on behalf of the North in the Korean War.

Despite Park’s efforts, by the end of 2015 inter-Korean relations were yet again back to where they had been at the end of 2013 and 2014, with little progress made with Pyongyang and with little help from Beijing. On November 28, North Korea tested a ballistic missile from a submarine, although the test failed. On December 8, the U.S. Treasury Department announced additional designations under Executive Orders 13551 and 13382, which included the State Department designating North Korea’s Strategic Rocket Force for engaging in activities to build delivery vehicles capable of carrying WMDs.  Over the weekend of December 12-13, North and South Korean vice-ministers met at the Kaesong joint economic venture to develop a plan to reduce military tensions and expand cooperation. The talks floundered over the inability to reach consensus on an agenda, and the North declared that “prospects of North-South relations became even bleaker.”31 At the same time, Kim abruptly canceled the scheduled performances of the Moranbong pop band, which was already in Beijing, due to “communication issues.”32 On December 21, North Korea closed the year by testing yet another ballistic missile from a submarine. The stage was now set for the North’s fourth nuclear test, which would come in\\at the beginning of a new year—on January 6, 2016.

Conclusion

President Park Geun-hye came into the presidency pledging a policy of trustpolitik and alignment designed to promote inter-Korean reconciliation through principled engagement while holding North Korea to account. Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, called it “a vision” and a “philosophy” that was “neither a utopian idealism that shies away from realpolitik nor a naïve political romanticism.”33 It was presented as a reasonable and principled combination of carrots and sticks, where Seoul would stick to a consistent stance, urging Pyongyang to respect international standards and norms and abide by its promises or pay a penalty for broken promises. To advocates of this approach, Kim’s decision to resume operations of the Kaesong Industrial Complex after a five-month shutdown in 2013 was a concrete example that this approach was working. Park’s steadiness in the face of various fluctuations and machinations by the North, including the Kaesong shutdown and resumption, initially won her over 50 percent approval by the public.

But the public support soon faded. By the end of 2015, the public was weary of Park’s approach, which did not result in any tangible progress with North Korea, and the public questioned the effectiveness of Park’s “middle of the road policy.” As Korea University Professor Shin-hwa Lee put it in 2014, if Park’s North Korea policy “takes the safe road of not rocking the boat, she needed to face criticism, as Obama has, of being too wary and ineffectual in forging a breakthrough for rocky inter-Korean relations.”34 Doubts about Park’s North Korea policy spread even within her own party. Some in her party had gone further than supporting strengthening of sanctions against the North, saying that it might be time for Seoul to consider asking the US to bring back tactical nuclear weapons, which it withdrew from the South in the early 1990s.35

Park made preparing to unify the two Koreas the centerpiece of her administration’s approach to North Korea. As South Korean scholar Yoo Ho-yeol put it, Park envisioned three steps: (1) normalization of North-South relations through a trust process; (2) progression from “small unification” to “big unification”; and (3) realistic preparation for unification through capacity strengthening.36 Perhaps more than any Korean President since Syngman Rhee, Park had sought to mobilize Korean public opinion and international support for her vision of a reunified Korea, emphasizing the benefits and downplaying costs. The Kim regime was not only unwilling to reciprocate Park’s vision with positive actions, it responded with acrimony, accusations, and threats. Park strengthened bilateral ties with Beijing in large part to attain increased pressure on the Kim regime and acquiescence to her unification proposal, but despite numerous meetings with Xi, Park’s extensive efforts to gain alignment with China on policy toward North Korea were ultimately unsuccessful too.

By the end of 2015, Park’s approach had failed to deter the Kim regime from its decades-long quest to develop, expand, and refine its nuclear and missile arsenal. Park had few options left. She could continue to try to engage an erratic regime that had gone so far as to call her a prostitute and had not agreed to discuss the possibility of nuclear disarmament in any future talks. Or she could shift to a more confrontational approach, pushing for more sanctions and embracing an American missile defense system. With little prospect of persuading Kim Jong-un or even Xi Jinping, as 2015 closed, the only question was to what degree she would abandon her attempts to engage with Pyongyang.

Park had come to office with high hopes of making progress with the North by pursuing a more balanced policy than her predecessors. While her efforts were worthwhile, they had failed. After nearly three years in office, she had little to show for her vaunted forays into “trustpolitik.” Trust between the two sides was as low as ever—and in the process, with her aggressive outreach to China (as epitomized by her attendance at Beijing’s Victory Day celebration), Park had also strained relations with the United States. Now the question she had to confront was what adjustments to make in her remaining time in office.



1. Park Geun-hye, “A New Kind of Korea: Building Trust Between Seoul and Pyongyang, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2011.

2. Ibid.

3. Chico Harlan, “In North Korea, seismic activity detected near nuclear test site,” The Washington Post, February 12, 2013.

4. Choe Sang-hun, “North Korea Calls Hawaii and U.S. Mainland Targets,” The New York Times, March 26, 2013.

5. Choe Sang-hun, “Korean Factory Complex Is Shut Down by the North,” The New York Times, April 8, 2013.

6. Trade summary for China 2013, World Integrated Trade Solution, World Bank, https://wits.worldbank.org/CountryProfile/en/Country/CHN/Year/2013/Summarytext

7. See for example, Ling Yuhan, “Xi, Park share nuke position,” Global Times, June 28, 2013; Ju-min Park, “South Korea’s Park set to charm China, show up the North,” Reuters, June 23, 2013.

8. “6 months on, Park rides high,” Joongang Daily, August 22, 2013. See also surveys conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “Evaluating President Park Geun-Hye’s Foreign Policy in its 1st Year,” Issue Briefs, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, February 24, 2014.

9. “North Korea Blames South, cancels family reunions,” CNN, September 21, 2013.

10. Choe Sang-hun, “North Korea Postpones Family Reunion Programs,” The New York Times, September 21, 2013.

11. Zhu Feng and Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, “Purge of Jang Song-Taek and its Impact on China’s Policy Toward North Korea,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint US-Korea Academic Studies: Asia’s Slippery Slope: Triangular Tensions, Identity Gaps Conflicting Regionalism, Diplomatic Impasse Toward North Korea (Washington, DC: Korean Economic Institute, 2014), 255-262.

12. Shin Yong-bae, “Full text of Park’s speech on N. Korea,” The Korea Herald, March 28, 2014.

13. Ibid.

14. “Evaluation President Park Geun-Hye’s Foreign Policy in its 1st Year,” Issue Brief, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, February 24, 2014.

15. Ibid.

16. “N. Korea blasts Park for her proposals on North,” Yonhap News Agency, April 1, 2014.

17. Lee Ji-sun, “North Korea Rejects Dresden Proposal,” Kyunghang Sinmun, April 13, 2014. https://www.khan.co.kr/politics/north-korea/article/201404132155165

18. Tania Branigan, “North Korea labels South’s president as ‘crafty prostitute’ after Obama visit, The Guardian, April 27, 2014.

19. “Kim Jong Un’s New Year Address,” KCNA, January 1, 2015.

20. Ibid.

21. Hong So Yeon, “NK’s UN Deputy Ambassador urges Suspension of Military Drills,” Daily NK, January 14, 2015.

22. “US imperialists will face doom: DPRK NDC,” KCNA, February 4, 2015; “Propaganda balloon launches again presenting obstacle to inter-Korean dialogue,” The Hankyoreh, January 9, 2015.

23. Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., “The Korean People’s Navy Tests New Anti-ship Cruise Missile,” Military Affairs, February 8, 2015.

24. Donga Ilbo, March 4, 2015, p. A06.

25. “Let’s end the era of division and open up the era of unification,” Joint Press Release issued by the Ministry of Unification, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of National Defense, and Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, January 19, 2015.

26. Shin Hyon-hee, “Seoul to enact unification law,” The Korea Herald, January 19, 2015.

27. Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., “Underwater Test-fire of Korean-style Powerful Strategic Submarine Ballistic Missile,” 38 North, May 13, 2015.

28. Anna Fifield, “After deal, North and South Korea try to work together—but for how long?” The Washington Post, August 26, 2015.

29. “North, South Korea Reach Agreement to End Standoff: North Korea agreed to end the ‘semi’ state of war it had declared,” Reuters, August 24, 2015.

30. Ibid.

31. Bruce Klingner, “Look Out for North Korean Nuclear Test as Isolation Grows,” The National Interest, December 16, 2015.

32. Edward Wong, “North Korean Band Abruptly Leaves China, Its Concerts Canceled,” The New York Times, December 12, 2015.

33. Yun Byung-se, “Park Geun-hye’s Trustpolitik: A New Framework for South Korea’s Foreign Policy,” Global Asia, September 16, 2013.

34. Shin wha-Lee, “South Korea’s Search for a New Diplomatic Strategy Toward North Korea,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Asia’s Slippery Slope, p. 233

35. See, for example, Chung Mong-joon, “Thinking the Unthinkable on the Korean Peninsula,” Issues & Insights, Vol. 14, No. 2 (January 24, 2014).

36. Ho-yeol Yoo, “South Korea’s Unification Policy and Prospects,” in Gilbert Rozman ed., Joint US-Korea Academic Studies: Asia’s Uncertain Future: Korea, China’s Aggressiveness, and New Leadership (Washington, DC: Korea Economic Institute of American, 2013), p. 211.

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