Park, Lee, and Obama all had big plans to “engage” North Korea. North Korea had other plans.

Robert links to some polling data suggesting the pleasantly surprising fact that not only did North Korea’s missile test fail to swing votes toward Moon Jae-in, the ideological successor and former Chief of Staff to arch-appeaser Roh Moo-Hyun, it may have caused more conservative voters to flock to the polls to vote for Park (or against Moon).  If those voters expected Park to govern as a hard-liner, however, they’re projecting. Park didn’t run as a hard-liner in this election; in fact, she avoided creating much daylight between herself and Moon on North Korea policy.  Park has advocated Sunshine Lite for years, and even if (like me) you don’t agree with Park’s positions, at least acknowledge her consistency.

People have a tendency to project policies they want on candidates they prefer to other candidates — just look at how disappointed the left is at Barack Obama, the guy who won a Nobel Peace Prize at around 4 p.m. on Inauguration Day for promising to close Gitmo. It’s possible, of course, that Park comes to office with a secret hidden agenda, or with an enduring grudge for the fact that Kim Il Sung sent the assassin who killed her mother on live television.  It would be nice to think that the evil that men do eventually returns to them.  But that’s not how I assess Park.  Park is all about expediency and pragmatism.  She’s competent, tough, and honest, an will be an effective and cool-headed executive, but isn’t ideological (another adjective we could substitute, given the awful realities of life for most North Koreans, is “principled”).

If you forecast Park’s policies based solely on the evidence she’s offered us, at this moment she intends to give North Korea aid, but not without some return on her investment, not at the expense of South Korea’s own economy, and not at the expense of its relations with the United States.  Sound familiar?

In his inaugural speech, Lee reiterated his willingness to engage North Korea economically as long as it gave up its nuclear program. Unlike Roh, who always emphasized that North Korea was a small country that felt threatened by the outside world, Lee placed the onus on North Korea.

“Once North Korea abandons its nuclear program and chooses the path to openness, we can expect to see a new horizon in inter-Korean cooperation,” Lee said, adding that he was willing to help North Korea raise its per capita income to $3,000 within 10 years.

Considered a moderate in his party, Lee, unlike some South Korean conservatives, does not call for regime change in Pyongyang and is not expected to emphasize human rights violations in the North. During the presidential transition, he signaled that he might take a harder line on the North by eliminating South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, which critics consider soft on the North. But he eventually decided to keep it.

Like his left-leaning predecessors, Lee said that policy toward the North should “prepare the foundation for unification.”

“Unification of the two Koreas is the long-cherished desire of the 70 million Korean people,” he said.  [NYT]

Like Lee, Park doesn’t want to expend political capital on a pissing match with North Korea, and she might even have convinced herself that she can avoid one.  She’ll soon learn that she can’t. North Korea isn’t interested in what Park is offering.  It demands aid, and it refuses conditions.  North Korea will provoke her because that’s what North Korea does when it doesn’t get what it demands.  And when it does — key point — Park Geun-Hye will not just take it. Consequently, her North Korea policy will turn out to be something completely different than what she promised and still expects.

Today, the left is painting a revisionist image of Lee Myung Bak as a “hard-liner” for falling victim to the very same cycle.  On North Korea, however, Lee advocated a more generous brand of Sunshine Lite than either Park or the ultra-conservative offshoot Liberty Forward Party.  Lee was never an ideologue on North Korea. All he really cared about was bulldozing out big ditches and helping the chaebol make lots of money.  He was ready to give North Korea its own piece of the action by employing cheap (read: forced) North Korean labor in the service of the chaebol.  Here it is, all spelled out in detail, in a form that hardly seems less aggressive than Roh’s model.  Unlike Roh and like Park Geun-Hye, however, Lee demanded disarmament and reform in return.  He wanted a North-South relationship without the co-dependency and abuse, he wasn’t interested in spending his term wearing a ball gag, and he assumed that Kim Jong Il would accede to that.  When Lee entered office, the head of his transition team made this telling comment:

“In evaluating the past five years, the ministry admitted there had been no visible reforms in the North and that their policies had lacked effectiveness,” said Lee Dong-gwan, the transition team’s spokesman.

At about that time, an American president was also entering office hoping that he could reduce tensions with North Korea where his predecessors failed. Like Lee, he also favored economic outreach. Both presidents’ plans were almost immediately overcome by events:

Jan. 2008:  Incoming Lee Administration reviews aid programs for North, including massive last-minute aid commitments by outgoing President Roh Moo-Hyun.  Lee indicates he will link further aid to nuclear disarmament and return of South Korean abductees and POWs.

July 2008:  North Korean soldier shoots and kills South Korean tourist Park Wang-Ja at Kumgang.  South Korea demands that North Korea cooperate with an investigation into Park’s death; North Korea refuses.  South Korea halts tours out of concern for its citizens’ safety.

Jan. 2009:  Barack Obama takes office and asks North Korea to unclench its fist. North Korea says it will no longer recognize the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto sea boundary between the Koreas, and unilaterally withdraws from a 1991 inter-Korean non-aggression agreement.

Mar. 2009:  North Korea detains U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee along its border with China, an incident that Ling later suggests was a trap.

Apr. 2009:  North Korea tests an Unha-2 long-range rocket, in violation of UNSCR 1695 and 1718. The following week, it orders U.N. inspectors to leave Yongbyon, signaling the final collapse of George W. Bush’s Agreed Framework II.

May 2009:  North Korea tests several short-range missiles, restarts the reactor at Yongbyon, conducts an underground nuclear test, then unilaterally withdraws from the 1953 Korean War cease fire.

June 2009:  U.N. Security Council responds to the nuclear test with Resolution 1874.

Aug. 2009:  North Korea frees a South Korean Kaesong manager after 137 days in custody, and  bills her employer $20,000 for the cost of his room and board.

Sept. 2009:  South Korea accuses the North of intentionally releasing water from a dam and killing six South Koreans.

Nov 2009: North Korean ship crosses the NLL and gets the worst of it.  North Korea vows to take revenge.

Jan. 2010:  North and South Korea exchange artillery fire near their maritime boundary.

Mar. 2010:  North Korea torpedoes the ROKS Cheonan south of the NLL and kills 46 South Korean sailors.

Apr. 2010:  North Korea announces that it will confiscate South Korean property at Kumgang.

Oct. 2010:  Two shots are fired from a North Korean DMZ guard post.

Nov. 2010:  North Korea shells a civilian village on Yeongpyeong Island, South Korea, killing four and causing the evacuation of the island’s entire population.  The attack causes a significant shift in South Korean public opinion, away from giving unconditional aid to the North.

What’s amazing in retrospect is that Lee still kept the aid flowing until North Korea attacked South Korea on its own territory, and even then, he never shut down the Kaesong Industrial Park, a massive indirect subsidy for North Korea.  (Meanwhile, North Korea regularly blocked or restricted South Korean access to Kaesong, and levied confiscatory taxes against companies located there.)

So what hints do we have about where things are headed now?  First, KCNA has already been antagonizing Park and equating her with “traitor” Lee Myung-Bak (and Park’s own father, of course).  Remember how KCNA called for tearing out the throat of “rat-like” Lee?  North Korea will provoke — if only to test Park — and I’m betting that Park won’t take their shit.

Then, consider that second terms are policy tipping points for American presidents. Second terms are characterized by centrist, “stewardship” policies as weakened presidents try to keep the focus on a few second-term agenda items.  Obama’s team would have tipped toward engagement but for the missile.  Now, they feel they have to sanction.  I predict they’ll swing and miss at the U.N., which will give people like Ed Royce and John McCain a chance to voice a more conservative alternative policy for dealing with the North.  Obama may not want to argue the point.

Right now, everyone is predicting a softer line toward North Korea.  I don’t think it matters much what plans Obama and Park have right now.  Events will overcome those plans, too.

5 comments

  1. kushibo says:

    I can think of no reasonable justification whatsoever for President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

  2. Glans says:

    kushibo, Obama’s one achievement at that point was his defeat of McCain/Palin. Perhaps not nobelworthy, but pretty important. I’ll appeal to a third party: Joshua, do you agree that Sara Palin would have been worse than Joe Biden? Especially considering John McCain’s age.

  3. kushibo says:

    I agree that he did deserve something for defeating McCain and Palin, and that thing is called… Wait for it… the election.

    McCain was not somebody who is so evil or anything like that that defeating him in the election warranted giving him the Nobel Prize.

    Anyway, Joshua, I’ll be a little less coy than you are: I’m beginning to think that North Korea deliberately scares the bejeezus out of South Koreans purposefully so that they will vote for a conservative candidate. A conservative candidate makes a better enemy in the North Korean press, and that is the kind of thing that justifies the North Korean regime’s existence.

  4. BobM says:

    Joshua,

    This is another excellent post. I am again reminded that one of the reasons I am a regular visitor to this blog is because of the clear, punchy style that sifts through the nonsense far better than any mainstream source I can think of. I read about NK as often as time allows from as many different sources as possible, but none with the regularity that I do here.

    I won’t overdose you on praise, but I will wish you a happy holiday season and a healthy, prosperous new year.

    Thanks for your work.

  5. Joshua says:

    Thank you, BobM. Happy holidays to you, too.

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