The best chance for bringing Pyongyang to the negotiating table and keeping it there probably lies in a similar combination of deterrence and engagement. Changing the mindset of North Korea’s leaders is far beyond the capabilities of any South Korean president. But there is always the possibility that Pyongyang — like Beijing and Hanoi — will one day acknowledge that greater engagement with the rest of the world serves its interests more than isolationism and militarism. If and when it does so, a consistent and pragmatic approach like the one that Park advocates will have the best chance of encouraging the DPRK’s peaceful evolution while minimizing backtracking.
Rising tensions between China and Japan represent another potential danger for Park Geun-hye’s government. Koreans have long used an old adage to describe the impact of conflicts among their larger neighbors on the peninsula: When whales fight the shrimp gets crushed. Seoul has good reason to fear that this proverb will again prove relevant should Beijing and Tokyo come to blows over the disputed Diaoyu-Senkaku islands. The last time China and Japan forces clashed in the East China Sea was during the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 — a conflict in which Korea suffered even though it was not a combatant. During the war, Japan formally wrested Korea from China’s control but not before military engagements left Pyongyang and other Korean cities significantly damaged.
For President Park, relations with China and Japan present a nettlesome quandary that will require her to strike a careful balance in her foreign policy. Popular sentiment will undoubtedly complicate the issue. On the one hand, Koreans have their own territorial dispute with Japan over Dokdo-Takeshima and, like the Chinese, have bitter memories of Japanese expansionism during World War II. On the other, Japan and South Korea are both important allies of the United States that share a common set of democratic values. They are also both wary of China’s ambitions to assert itself as a regional power.
And yet President Park is not without leverage when it comes to handling this delicate situation. South Korea may not be the most powerful or wealthiest nation in the Pacific but it is among the most trusted. It has no history of territorial aggrandizement or hegemonic ambitions and is admired for its vibrant economy and dynamic popular culture. As a result, Seoul punches above its weight in international organizations. The key will be converting these assets into tangible achievements in trilateral relations.
To start with, Park needs to adopt a different strategy than her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak. Lee squandered much of South Korea’s political capital in the region by needlessly escalating frictions with Japan over disputed fishing islands and doing little to stop relations with China from deteriorating due to disagreements over North Korea policy. Park points to slowing military arms buildups and strengthening multilateral regimes including trilateral summits as possible methods for reversing the decline in Seoul’s relations with its neighbors.
She will have a small window of opportunity to push for this agenda because the new Chinese and Japanese heads of state, Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe, have both sought a fresh start in their relations with the ROK. Even the wisest diplomacy is unlikely to break the impasses that exist between China, Japan and South Korea on some issues. Nevertheless, by seizing the opportunity to promote confidence building and cooperative security measures, Park can at least contribute to their resolution rather than allowing them to become a casus belli.