Park has chance to break Korean impasse

By Lee Dong-jun Source:Global Times Published: 2012-12-26 19:54:04

On February 21, 1972, US President Richard Nixon said to Chairman Mao Zedong, "I think the important thing to note…those on the right can do what those on the left talk about."

Citing this comment, some US historians say that conservatives have more strategic choices than progressives do because the former face less resistance from their traditional supporters.

Actually, by maximizing his political advantages as a conservative, Nixon won Mao's trust and made history: Sino-US rapprochement. Is a similar breakthrough possible on the Korean Peninsula?

On December 19, South Korea elected its new president, the ruling New Frontier Party candidate Park Geun-hye. Park won, more than anything, because she is a proven conservative politician.

In a closely contested presidential election, those on the right, who are generally considered "stability or status quo-oriented," cast all their votes for Park. As the eldest daughter of former president Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country from 1961 to 1979, Park's victory reaffirmed the conservatives' dominance in South Korean society. This also explains why skeptics have nearly given up hope for better inter-Korean relations.

However, there are some indications that Park will represent a significant challenge to the old conservative ideas in South Korea. From the perspective of her policy on North Korea, President-elect Park is more of a liberal realist rather than a rigid hardliner.

During her presidential campaign, Park tried to play down her conservative stance on the North. She promised to return to engagement with Pyongyang, a departure from the hawkish stance against the North championed by incumbent President Lee Myung-bak, which was seen as a failure by many South Koreans because of two attacks during his tenure. One was an artillery attack on a South Korean island and the other the alleged sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, both in 2010.

Park said she hoped to build trust with the North, though in far more transparent ways and for genuine, long-term peace and prosperity.

Importantly, Park promised to respect two joint declarations adopted by her liberal predecessors, presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, during their 2000 and 2007 summit meetings with then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

As is well known, however, Kim and Roh's "Sunshine Policy" toward North Korea was not supported by large segments of South Korea's conservatives.

In comparison, Park can use her own conservative credentials to lighten the pressure. Park already met with North Korea's leader in Pyongyang in 2002 in her capacity as conservative leader of a splinter opposition party, and the two discussed ways to bring peace to the divided Korean Peninsula.

Many older South Koreans vividly remember their surprise in the 1970s when then conservative governments in Seoul, including one led by Park's father, agreed on drastic rapprochement measures. When Park entered politics 15 years ago, she said that it was to complete the unfinished work of her father.

In this context, her election has more than justified what her father sought. There is no reason why the junior Park cannot push for a major breakthrough in settling the problems facing Koreans.

Fortunately, there is a consensus in the South that inter-Korean dialogue must resume as an approach to denuclearization and peace on the Peninsula. Park probably recognizes the necessity for reestablishing meaningful dialogue with North Korea by taking Kim Jong-un seriously.

If Park makes a deal with the North, she can also capitalize on her conservative background, which Nixon took with him to China 40 years ago.

Of course, at present, Park is yet to unveil the details on how she will deal with a de facto nuclear North Korea beyond the announced "trust-building process." However, as a liberal conservative, Park now has a golden chance to make a breakthrough with the North. Let's see if she takes it.

The author is a professor with the Asiatic Research Institute of Korea University.

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