By James Kim
A mother often punishes her child whenever he misbehaves and rewards him if he deserves it. So goes the ideology of Trustpolitik, the new South Korean policy on containing North Korean aggression. Since Park Geun-hye became South Korea’s first female president in 2012, Trustpolitik has offered a much more assertive approach to Kim Jong-un’s continuation of his father’s policies of nuclear extortion. If the North tries to provoke the South, President Park will cut off aid to her neighbor. This is a reversal of her predecessor’s Sunshine Policy, which was a more conciliatory approach, usually with no strings attached. Nonetheless, Park promises to help alleviate North Korea’s economic woes and reaffirm existing agreements if they can prove their commitment to the truce. Park’s inauguration address spoke of “a trust-building process, for Koreans [to live] prosperous and freer lives” .
On October 23rd, Lee Jong-joo, a representative of the South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, visited UC San Diego to explain what Trustpolitik means for South Korea’s future diplomacy with its northern neighbor. She pointed out in a slideshow that Kim Jong-un uses the nuclear game as a show of force to both the outside world and to inner party dissenters who question the young leader’s ability to rule. For the North Korean leader, nukes are merely a short-term political asset to a long-term economic goal as his nation still endures a devastating famine, not to mention the recession that has ailed the Communist bloc since the fall of the U.S.S.R. . Obtaining nuclear weapons provides him not only with a cheap method for national security (as opposed to feeding and paying a burgeoning military), but also leverage in diplomatic talks with both the Republic of Korea across the 48th Parallel and the United States. Nonetheless, the recent flare-ups this spring show how precarious the double-edged sword of nuclear diplomacy has proven to be for Kim Jong-un, who not only incurred the wrath of the U.S. military, but also increased tensions with his only ally, China, which does not want an unstable nuclear-armed regime on its border .
Continuing in her lecture, Lee mentioned how the city of Kaesong represents a critical link between the two Koreas. Located inside North Korea near the Demilitarized Zone, the Kaesong Industrial Region helps stabilize the North Korean economy while providing South Korea with a source of physical labor for its chaebol, or major corporations . The area’s closing during the spring tensions proved to be one of first tests for the Trustpolitik policy, as President Park refused to send back her economic advisors until North Korea could ensure it would not cause another international stir. She even warned “if North Korea launches another strike, then Seoul must respond immediately to ensure Pyongyang understands the costs of military provocation.” Since Kim Jong-un originally closed the economic zone, President Park wanted to see how long North Korea could stomach the loss of a vital part of its economy as well as handle a miscalculation by its leader. It appears that Kaesong was more important to the North then to the South, as the area was reopened in August and the North gave compensation to South Korean businesses that lost profit from its closing.
Trustpolitik survived its first trial, but it has yet to encounter a situation that actually involves loss of life, such as the sinking of the Cheonan that occurred during the administration of Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, a hardliner who refused to escalate the protests against North Korean aggression. It may be that the new policy will face rougher waves as Kim’s nuclear policy does not appear to be slowing down. However, Trustpolitik’s ability to extract concessions in its first major test still shows that this policy has had a fortunate start on its road to détente.
Image by Joe Doe