It wasn't supposed to be this way.
During her ultimately victorious presidential campaign last year, South Korea's new conservative president, Park Geun Hye, rarely touched on foreign policy. (Though it's a fair question as to whether North Korea really constitutes "foreign" policy as far as Seoul is concerned.) When I traveled with Park as she campaigned across South Korea last winter, she focused almost exclusively on economic issues while on the stump. (The South Korean presidential election felt oddly like the American one in that regard.)
"Exchange, cooperation" - these buzz words were hallmarks of the failed Sunshine Policy of the early 2000s.
And even when prodded into discussing foreign affairs generally, and North Korea in particular, Park took a surprisingly dovish line -- particularly for a rightist. She stressed that she wanted to build "trust" with the North Korean regime, and even went to so far as to hint that she might restart the Sunshine Policy, which had been enacted under two left-wing presidents from 1998 to 2008, and which had stressed "cooperation" with the North Koreans, as well as essentially unconditional economic assistance and other forms of aid. The Sunshine Policy, of course, ended up a torrential downpour, and did nothing to forestall North Korea's nuclear weapons program or to promote economic development, not to mention to improve the North's egregious human rights record. In 2010, South Korea's Unification Ministry officially branded the policy a "failure."
But if the newly installed Park had hoped to focus her energy on kick-starting the world's ninth largest economy, which grew a disappointing 2.1 percent last year, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un had other ideas. The North conducted its third nuclear test on February 12; Park was inaugurated on February 25. Pyongyang's nuclear test was followed by more than a month of extraordinarily belligerent threats, as well as Kim Jong Un's closing of a joint industrial park between the South and the North, which had been one of the few remaining vestiges of the Sunshine era. The North's regime even shut down the military hotline that connects the two countries, thereby greatly escalating the risk of a series of misunderstandings or miscommunications leading to war.
In a way, Kim Jong Un's actions were clarifying: they reminded the world of the grotesque nature of his regime, and rendered it essentially impossible for Park to pursue a Sunshine strategy. After all, even a nominal conservative can't get away with giving aid to a regime that's threatening to turn your capital city into a "sea of fire." And so, rather than resume aid or exchanges, Park stood steadfast, telling her country's military leaders in April that, "if the North attempts any provocation against our people and country, you must respond strongly at first contact with them without any political consideration." She also declared that in the event of a nuclear attack from the North, the country's regime would be "erased."
That was only a month ago. But South Korea's would-be Iron Lady may already be starting to go wobbly. On her recent visit to Washington as president, she appeared to hint at an ill-advised re-start of the Sunshine Policy.
Park addressed a well-attended joint session of Congress last Wednesday - a testament to the strength of the United States and South Korea's sixty-year-old alliance. John Boehner, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and other notables were in attendance. As she delivered her 34-minute address in halting but proficient English, Park held her audience - Republicans, Democrats, and visiting dignitaries alike - in rapt attention. But Park's message was alarming.