Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s first female president and the daughter of its former military dictator Park Chung-hee, entered office Monday bearing a massive historical burden and facing a number of serious policy problems (including a limping economy), the most serious of which — the South’s relationship with its increasingly bellicose northern neighbor — has been steadily worsening in recent weeks. In her inaugural address, she repeated a campaign promise to establish “trust-building” with Pyongyang and suggested that previous deals hammered out by her predecessors as regarded North Korea might still be honored.
The fact less than two weeks previously the North tested a nuclear device in defiance of international opinion — and to the apparent special consternation of its economic prop China — lent those words a certain trenchancy.
Park did acknowledge the nuke test in her speech, suggesting it would ultimately harm North Korea (a conclusion with which it would be hard to disagree, were it not so difficult to imagine how an isolated nation suffering starvation so serious it has produced allegations of cannibalism might be further harmed). And if Park has not been a friend to the North over the course of her political career to date, she has not precisely been its enemy. In 2002, she traveled to Pyongyang for a dinner with then-President Kim Jong-il, where he reportedly apologized for the spies his father, Kim Il-sung, dispatched with orders to kill Park’s father. (Now that’s keeping it in family.) And Park has generally advocated a less-bellicose stance toward North Korea than has been favored by many high-level South Korean politicians (such as her immediate predecessor Lee Myung-bak).
While Kim Jong-un seemed ready to bury the hatchet with the south in anticipation of Park’s ascent, the recent flurry of nuke-related activity suggests that policy concept was either hollow to begin with or has been abandoned. It’s unlikely Kim will be inviting Park for dinner in Pyongyang anytime soon. There is no indication that he would submit to a summit, as his father did in 2000 and 2007, and he has been adamant that North Korea will pursue its nuclear ambitions without concerns about backlash or sanctions from any quarter.
There’s also no reason to doubt that the current regime in Pyongyang intends to continue its nuclear program until some external actor compels it to stop — which might in turn compel Park to adopt policies that echo her predecessor’s more than she once planned.