SEOUL – As US election fever dies down, it’s time for the intrepid gang of Pyongyangologists to start turning their attention to an equally important political event: this December’s South Korean presidential elections. With an Obama victory safely on the table, all eyes will be on South Korea’s presidential candidates over next few months, as the diplomatic tinderbox on the Korean peninsula continues to develop.
Park Geun-hye, daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee and presidential candidate for the conservative Saenuri Party, today pledged to resume humanitarian aid to North Korea after incumbent president Lee Myung-bak stopped sending all aid to Pyongyang after taking office in 2008. Speaking at a press conference in Seoul, Park also vowed to “promote mutually beneficial economic, social, and cultural exchanges” with the North in order to build a “sustainable peace” on the Korean Peninsula.
Resuming aid and exchanges with Pyongyang were needed to activate a “trust-building process” between the two Koreas in order to cooperate “with the international community” to steer “North Korea on the path of meaningful change,” Park said.
Park also declared she was willing to meet North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un “if it helps in moving forward South-North relations.” But she stressed she would “not seek a meeting just for the sake of having a meeting,” saying “such a summit must involve an honest dialogue on issues of mutual concern.”
Many an observer who has followed his four-year reign in the Blue House say President Lee Myung-bak has taken an overly hardline approach to handling North Korea. Ties between Seoul and Pyongyang are at their lowest point in years, with talks between the two neighbors stalled and six-nation negotiations on North Korea’s denuclearization at a standstill.
Bilateral and multilateral discussions have been suspended for the last two years following two major military incidents. One of the attacks, in which 46 sailors lost their lives, saw the alleged torpedoing a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in 2010. In November that year, North Korea responded to South Korean military exercises by bombarding the island of Yeongpyeong, a small island that rests on the Southern side of the controversial Northern Limit Line (NLL), killing four people, and two construction workers on a military base. Both incidents occurred in or around disputed territories.
Park said that “today, the on the Korean Peninsula is more uncertain and in flux than it’s ever been, and conflicts and tensions in Northeast Asia are on the rise unlike any other previous period.” “From the very onset,” she added, “the next Korean government is likely to face external challenges and resolving them will emerge as central national tasks.”
In order to meet these challenges, Park said she would work to improve ties with Pyongyang and revive the Six-party talks on encouraging the North to give up its weaponized nuclear program. She also emphasized the need for a robust deterrence, and promised she would “never accept a nuclearized North Korea” or “allow a second Cheonan or Yeonpyeong incident” to occur.
Park also voiced her intention to seek balanced diplomacy between Washington and Beijing if she is elected South Korea’s leader in the upcoming presidential election next month. She said such a balance, as well as harmonious relations with and between the U.S. and China, are needed to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia .
The latest surveys show Park edging ahead of her more liberal rivals – entrepreneur Ahn Cheol-soo, an independent, and the Democratic United Party’s Moon Jae-in – if all three contenders continue to run separately. According to polls, however, it remains unclear if she can maintain her lead should the two liberal candidates merge their campaigns under a single individual, Moon or Ahn, as they agreed to do earlier this week.