After North Korean Shelling, Another Look at South Korea's 'Trustpolitik'


Next week, South Korean President Park Geun-hye will reach the halfway mark of her single five-year term. As a natural point for reflection on her achievements, the timing is unfortunate when considering inter-Korean relations.

With Park poised to enter the second half of her presidency, the relationship between North and South Korea is arguably as tense and acrimonious as at any point since she took office. That’s despite Park coming to power with a pledge to build trust and goodwill between the neighbors through cooperation, a policy she termed “trustpolitik.” Although hard to define, the stance was seen as a move away from the isolation policy of her predecessor, President Lee Myung-bak, while still maintaining robust defense.

Capping a month of elevated tensions, North Korea on Thursday fired an artillery shell at propaganda loudspeakers on the southern side of the militarized border separating the countries, South Korean media reported. No casualties or property damage was reported in the attack, which the South met with a barrage of its own shells.

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Less than three weeks earlier, two South Korean soldiers were maimed in a landmine explosion, also at the buffer zone between the countries. South Korea and the United Nations Command swiftly blamed the injuries on the North. In retaliation, Seoul resumed propaganda broadcasts via loudspeakers at the border for the first time in over a decade, a move quickly met in kind by Pyongyang.

For inter-Korean relations, August already qualifies as a “mensis horribilis,” and it’s not even three-quarters of the way through. In such an atmosphere, the fruits of the president’s signature foreign policy agenda are hard to find.

“I think the bottom line is trustpolitik has made zero progress,” John Delury, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, told The Diplomat. “The goal, fairly clearly, was that concept and applying it to North Korea. She knew it wasn’t going to be easy — I mean, it’s never easy. I don’t think you can just say, ‘Oh, well, they’ve (North Korea) been difficult.’ They’re always difficult and the trick is, how do you make breakthroughs?”

For Delury — who is generally regarded as pro-engagement on the controversial question of North Korea policy — the administration has been too timid to match the rhetoric of trust-building with bold action.

“If she was serious about building trust and opening the channels again, she would have revoked the May 24 sanctions by now,” he said, referring to measures introduced in response to the 2010 sinking of the South Korean warship, Cheonan. It “doesn’t take a divine act to” remove the sanctions, Delury said.

While he said Park may take greater initiative in the second half of her presidency, Delury characterized trustpolitik as practiced to-date as merely an exercise in public relations for the home crowd.

“Because it’s halfway through, I’m at a point to say trustpolitik is not actually a strategy toward North Korea. It’s a domestic strategy to preempt and deflect criticism from liberals and progressives, who want engagement with the North.”

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