South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s speech in Dresden on March 28 attracted a lot of comments, at least in the Koreas and among Korea observers. Not front page news elsewhere, but then the international press is seldom interested in Korea unless there is a whiff of gunpowder in the air. To many sub-editors the title – “An Initiative for Peaceful Unification on the Korean Peninsula” – must have ranked close to Claud Cockburn’s famous “Small earthquake in Chile, not many dead” as an attention grabber. A great pity, because Korean unification is an important subject, with global ramifications.
Most of the mainstream South Korean press was, as to be expected, laudatory. The state-funded news agency, Yonhap, called it a “landmark speech” and the right-wing JoongAng Ilbo decided that she had “made history.” The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency was, as to be expected, dismissive and, as is too frequently the case, somewhat incoherent – “She also put forth a ‘unification proposal’ woven with junk only to arouse ridicules and criticism even from among her hirelings.” It did not specify which hirelings expressed such career-shattering ridicule. However, criticism there has been, and rather damning criticism at that.
Whether Aidan Foster-Carter can really be described as a “hireling” of Park Geun-hye is debatable, but he is the foreigner most knowledgeable about the minutiae of North-South relations and he has produced a long critique of her northern policy (of which the Dresden Doctrine is the latest, and supposedly definitive expression) in two parts. The first outlines the policy of her predecessors (which includes of course her father, Park Chung-hee), while the second focuses on that of Park Geun-hye. He confesses himself ‘confused. Nay, I am baffled. Flummoxed, even, by the ‘mishmash’ of her North Korea policy, and pleads for “clarity” and consistency – “With all previous ROK Presidents bar one (Kim Young-sam), like them or loathe them, you knew where they stood on North Korea. That is crucial, if diplomacy is to have a chance; it’s a necessary basis for trust.” Trust, as in Trustpolitik, the supposed core of her policy, as adumbrated in her Foreign Affairs article in 2011, a year before the election, “A new kind of Korea: building trust between Seoul and Pyongyang?”
Ruediger Frank, having been brought up in East Germany, was bewildered by the choice of venue for a capstone speech on unification, “because a quarter of a century after the takeover – oh forgive me, unification – the elite in East Germany still often speak West German dialects.” Since the North Korean elite would surely suffer even more than their German counterparts in the event of a takeover, or absorption, by the South – the fissures in Korea run much deeper – this was a strange way of trying to gain their trust. Frank blamed her speechwriters, but of course the problems lie deeper.
Kim Ji-suk, an editorial writer for the liberal Hankyoreh, went to the core with an article entitled “The contradictions of Pres. Park’s Dresden Doctrine.” Kim made a number of astute criticisms including the key observation: “The rising tensions on the peninsula caused by the U.S.-ROK joint military exercises and the stalemate in talks to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue are the flipside of jackpot unification.” His use of the word “contradiction” offers a fruitful way of more rigorously analysing the “Dresden Doctrine,” and indeed Park’s North Korea policy in general. The interface between rhetoric and reality can be harmonious, and if so, well and good. But if it is contradictory then we are likely to get a stalemate ultimately resolved by force. It goes without saying that we must take into account the perceptions and aspirations of the North as well as the South, and the policies of interested foreign powers, especially the United States.
TWO TYPES OF CONTRADICTION
There are two sorts of contradiction at play here, and they can be conveniently labeled as external and internal.
By external, I mean the contradiction between what is contained in the proposals themselves and the concrete actions of the Park administration. There are a number of examples of this but the dominant one, the one that subsumes all the others, is the continuation and indeed escalation, of the joint US-ROK military exercises (as Kim notes). These have been going on, in various forms, for decades and they always raise tension on the peninsula. Whether one accepts the rather threadbare excuses – that they are routine and defensive – North Korea certainly does not see it that way. The authoritative (if not well-translated) Rodong Sinmun has described them as the “Basic Factor of Tension” and inimical to confidence-building: “to threaten fellow countrymen through war maneuvers in league with the U.S. imperialists is not for dialogue and confidence.” One aspect of exercises of this sort, which despite purportedly being defensive mimic war and invasion, is that the target country never knows whether this one is the real thing.
In 1983, it has recently been reported, nuclear war nearly erupted because the Soviet Union thought that U.S.-led exercises were a cover for a pre-emptive strike. The basis for this was the profound distrust between the two sides, and clearly few things exacerbate distrust more than threatening military exercises. Not merely have the military exercises continued under Park, they have actually become more threatening. Last year saw the “Playbook,” through which the U.S. deployed weapon systems such as B-52s and B-2s for the first time. This, as I have argued elsewhere, was probably intended to create a situation where President Park would find it difficult to carry out her campaign pledge to re-establish dialogue with the North. Despite Trustpolitik still being in the lexicon, and despite Dresden, that may have essentially succeeded. This year, just as Park Geun-hye was in Germany talking of “peaceful unification” the U.S. and ROK military were carrying out the largest landing drills (remember Inchon?) since at least 1993. It is hard to think of a simpler way to say to Pyongyang: Unification Yes! Peaceful No!
The other form of contradiction is where elements of these proposals are at variance with discernable reality. The main one, and the one that means that Park’s Trustpolitik will never get anywhere, at least peacefully, is the emphasis on the nuclear issue. More precisely, it is the demand that the North must unilaterally abandon its nuclear weapons programme. As President Park put it in her Independence Day address on March 1, “I call on the North to lay down its nuclear weapons.” Now armies do not lay down their weapons unless they are defeated, or come to a peace agreement with the other side. North Korea has developed nuclear weapons both as a deterrent to an American attack and a bargaining device to force the U.S. to accept peaceful coexistence and drop the policy of “hostility.” Whether U.S.-DPRK negotiations will ever be able to achieve this goal – bargaining hostility for denuclearization – is a moot issue, much discussed. However, the point here it that it is something which can only be negotiated between Washington and Pyongyang; however galling it might be, Seoul is but a bystander. The president of South Korea cannot speak for the president of the United States, and cannot do a deal over nuclear weapons. In truth it might be doubted whether the American president can either, but that is a subject for another day. Park Geun-hye can never offer Kim Jong Un anything that would justify the North’s nuclear disarmament, so having that demand as a key milestone means that the Trustpolitik will eventually run into the sand.
THE OPTIONS AVAILABLE
There are two courses open to the South Korean president. One is to try and persuade the Americans to enter substantive negotiations. For reasons too involved to go into here, that is unlikely to succeed. The other is, or rather was, sidestepping the nuclear issue entirely as most of her predecessors (but notably not Lee Myung-bak) did. However, it is probably too late for that now. Having run the nuclear issue up the flagpole it is difficult to see how she can haul it down, unless the Americans come to her aid with a face-saving device, and that is unlikely.
These two contradictions have a curious inter-relationship. As president of the Republic of Korea Park Geun-hye can, in theory, dispose of the joint military exercises, greatly defusing tension and invigorating Trustpolitik (in theory, because who knows the real balance of power between the president on the one hand and the combined militaries, and the U.S. government on the other?). However, where she has no power, in negotiating North Korean denuclearization, she claims to have it.
This is more than mishmash. Park Geun-hye’s North Korea policy, her Trustpolitik, is a policy whose inherent contradictions, whether due to guile, confusion, or self-delusion, predict inevitable failure. This is a great disappointment because she is the pivot on which so much hinges and it bodes ill for the people of both Koreas. A genuine, coherent policy for peaceful, consensual, and mutually beneficial unification is desperately needed.
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