South Korea's Not-Really-Iron Lady

What should Park Geun Hye do about the North?

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South Korean President Park Geun-hye delivers a speech during the 94th anniversary of the March First Independence Movement against Japanese colonial rule in Seoul on March 1, 2013. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

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.)

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.

Granted, Park said that she will "never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea," and that "Pyongyang's provocations will be met decisively." But just a few minutes later, she averred, "I will remain steadfast in pushing forward a process of trust-building on the Korean Peninsula . . . And with the trust that gradually builds up, through exchange, through cooperation, we will cement the grounds for durable peace and - eventually - peaceful reunification." "Exchange, cooperation" - these buzz words were hallmarks of the failed Sunshine Policy.

A few minutes later, she was even clearer, saying, "I will not link humanitarian aid provided to the North Korean people, such as infants and young children, to the political situation." If President Park follows through on this policy (let's call it what it is: unconditional aid), it will mark a departure. South Korea's last president, the estimable Lee Myung Bak, ended all aid programs in 2010 after the North, in a wanton act of unprovoked viciousness, sunk a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46.

A re-start of aid would be a mistake. The North impedes effective monitoring of food aid distribution, and it's widely known that much (if not all) of it is diverted to members of favored groups, particularly the military. But even if some of the aid does reach hungry civilians (a big if indeed!), Park's proposed policy remains deeply dubious, morally speaking. Unconditional food aid allows the Kim regime to essentially outsource its most basic responsibility - keeping its population from starving to death - while devoting what meager resources it does have to its military, its nuclear program, and its brutal internal security apparatus and gulag.

The Sunshine Policy involved a steadfast refusal to mention North Korean human rights abuses. That's why it's also notable that, in her address, Park failed to mention the North's human rights situation once - though she did manage to find the time to take an oblique shot at Japan, intoning that, "where there is a failure to acknowledge honestly what happened yesterday, there can be no tomorrow." This is another clear sign that, in spite of Kim Jong Un's actions this spring, Park is likely preparing an engagement strategy.

If Park does move to re-start the Sunshine Policy, she'll be uniquely well positioned to do so. She's the daughter of Park Chung Hee, the ferociously anti-Pyongyang military strongman who ruled South Korea from 1963 until 1979 (the country democratized in the late 1980s). Thus, through her familial ties -- which are very important in Korea -- the new president Park is emblematic of a particular brand of tough anti-communism. With her hawkish bona fides established, therefore, she won't need to guard her right flank. As they say, only Nixon could go to China.

To be sure, there are those who openly advocate a strategy like the one that Park seems likely to pursue. South Korea's most prominent left-wing newspaper for example, has editorialized that Park should pursue "specific and proactive ways to build trust with the North, including discussing a peace [treaty]."

The new president could choose to heed those voices. Or, she could listen to somebody else. I'd suggest she start with the 20,000-plus North Korean defectors who live in the South, many of whom strongly oppose the Sunshine Policy. Or at the very least, she could pick up Barbara Demick's magnificent Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, in which one defector, explaining her vehement opposition to aid, simply states, with laudable moral clarity, "You're propping up an evil regime."