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South Korea’s New Boss

On December 19 conservative Park Geun-hye, daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee, won South Korea’s national election over her opponent Moon Jae-in of the liberal ‘Democratic United Party’.  Ms. Park won 51% of the vote compared to Mr. Moon’s 47.8%.  The victory maintains power for the ‘Saenuri’ (New Frontier) Party, which is steadfastly pro-American and has held the presidency for the last 5 years under the now wildly unpopular Lee Myung-bak.

During Mr. Lee’s presidency South Korea cut off humanitarian aid and dialogue with the North and imposed sanctions in an effort to force it to give up its nuclear weapons.  President Lee’s aggressive policy towards the North boiled over during South Korean/US ‘war games’ which resulted in North Korea firing on a South Korean military base on Yeonpyeong Island on November 23, 2010.  The ‘war games’ involved over 70,000 South Korean troops and live ammunition fire in waters just off North Korean territory.  Describing the ‘war games’, Professor Martin Hart-Landsberg states, “Although the South claims that its war games and artillery fire were routine, it may be the first time that the South has staged major war games and simultaneously engaged in firing live ammunition into territory claimed by the North.”  Hart-Landsberg goes on to give context to the North’s response to this provocation by stating, “The North fired on the South Korean artillery batteries located on Yeonpyeong Island only after its repeated demands that the South stop its live ammunition firing were rejected by the South.”

The incoming President, Ms. Park, has promised to be less hard-line with the North than her predecessor, however her distancing from Lee’s North Korea policies may prove to be little more than campaign rhetoric.  Ms. Park has promised to resume humanitarian aid, however more change than that is unlikely. Korea expert Bruce Cumings states, “ Park Geun-hye may want to have dialogue with North Korea just because the results of Lee Myung-bak’s hard-line policy were so poor, but she will be constrained by her party and its support base.”

Ms. Park’s opponent Moon Jae-in would have likely shifted the South’s North Korean policy back towards ‘The Sunshine Policy’ of the previous two liberal governments (1998-2008). This policy involved much less militarily confrontation with the North, unconditional humanitarian assistance, and a loosening of restrictions on the South’s private sector to invest in North Korea.

What was at stake in this election? If Mr. Moon had won the election would South Korea’s return to the ‘The Sunshine Policy’ improve human rights in North Korea and bring the two Koreas closer to reunification?  In the words of Noam Chomsky,

“The solution is step-by-step reconciliation. It’s not going to solve the problem tomorrow. But in the longer term, it can solve the problem. The Koreans have always wanted to be reunited. That goes back to 1945. I’m sure that that’s just as true in the North as in the South. People have families, [it’s the] same country after all. So, a move towards reconciliation will reduce the human rights violations. Not easily. There will still be people starving; there will still be severe controls over the population. But the way to reduce them is to move towards the sunshine policy, move towards reconciliation. Every step that is made for reconciliation improves human rights. So every threat makes human rights violations worse. That’s almost true everywhere.”

The continuation of another conservative government in Seoul will indeed set back relations between the Koreas and will do little to help North Koreans living in already dire conditions.  The conservative government’s North Korea policy could also lead to more military flare ups in the Yellow sea along the Northern Limit Line such as the one that occurred on Yeonpyeong Island.  [The Northern Limit Line is a line not recognized by international law, but which is enforced by the South Korean Navy and signifies the boarder of North Korean waters.  The South unilaterally created it after the Korean War and it runs northward from the DMZ, unfairly limiting North Korea’s access to the sea. North Korea has never accepted this line and argued for an alternative sea border.]

Though the ‘The Sunshine Policy’ was significantly better then the current conservative’s North Korea policy is, one must understand the limitations of Korean politicians ability to drastically change the South’s North Korea policy.  This is because of the enormous influence the US wields in the country. When George W. Bush labeled North Korea part of the ‘Axis of Evil’ in 2003 North Korea understood the implicit threat of US military action.  Shortly after this the North announced it possessed a nuclear weapon.  Bush pulled his support for the ‘The Sunshine Policy’ and despite the fact that a South Korea had a liberal president (Kim Dae-jung) the South stopped humanitarian aid to the North.

A stunning example of the lack of independence South Korea has from the US is that in the event of a war the US takes over control of the South Korean Military.  When a country doesn’t completely control its own military how much independence can its politicians possibly have?

On the effect of Bush’s policy toward North Korea Bruce Cumings stated in 2003, “The result is the failure of Bush’s North Korea policy: in two years it has accomplished exactly nothing–except for a major anti-American movement in Seoul and perhaps the creation of circumstances in which the North was left with no choice but to go nuclear.”  Any country that had received a thinly veiled threat from the world’s military super power would do all it could to develop a nuclear deterrent.  In fact, when North Korea announced they possessed a nuclear weapon Washington cut off talks with the North.  Washington’s precondition to resume talks was for the North to give up its nuclear weapons.  But North Korea had seen what happened to Iraq in 2003 and the North’s state-run KCNA news agency stated, “The DPRK will be left with no option but to do everything to defend itself unless the US legally guarantees no use of arms, including nukes, against the DPRK.”

Of course, the US didn’t guarantee it wouldn’t attack North Korea and still hasn’t.

In the words of the Korean Policy Institute, “Pyongyang is ultimately looking for a security guarantee. Without an end to Washington’s policy and threat of a pre-emptive strike, advances in inter-Korea economic cooperation remain fragile. No proposal for unification is viable unless it contains a solution to these fundamental political problems.”

The presence of: 37,500 US troops in South Korea and the South’s superior sophisticated weapons arsenal (including the recent purchase of 4 drones from the US to gather surveillance on the North) are factors the North legitimately sees as a large threat.  The situation is all the more complicated by the fact that the US response to the alleged North’s sinking of a South Korean submarine (Cheonan in 2010) and the North’s attack on Yeonpyeong was to carry out ‘military exercises’ with a nuclear powered aircraft carrier near the Korean Peninsula.  These actions threaten China, which is beginning to assert itself in the region.

As the Korean Policy Institute puts it,

“The Obama administration’s ‘Asia pivot’, which includes significant U.S. military deployment to the region, is increasing tensions with China, while Beijing is using its influence over North Korea as a means to reduce Washington’s influence and strengthen its own position. Less powerful countries that hope to see an end to U.S. hegemony are strengthening their relationships with China. The United States, which hopes to maintain control in East Asia, will likely respond to this aggressively, leading to increased tensions in the region with negative consequences for the Korean Peninsula.”

So ultimately, despite the fact that the conservative Ms. Park was victorious on December 19 in the South Korean national election and the South’s Policy toward the north will remain relatively hostile, one shouldn’t be too disheartened by the defeat of the liberal Mr. Moon.  Liberal politicians are never able to bring about the fundamental changes that are truly necessary because they are too heavily imbedded in the structures of power.  They only improve things when they respond to demands from organized movements.  In the words of Suyoel (the Anti-war Team Leader for People’s Solidarity for Social Progress (PSSP) in South Korea), “it will take a peoples’ movement—in the United States and Korea—to offer alternatives and build a transnational struggle to find lasting peace on the Korean peninsula.”

These words ring especially true for Americans as their government’s actions are the driving force behind the increasing risks of a military confrontation in the region and, as has been the case most of the last 60 years, are taking actions which prevent the reunification of the Korean peninsula.  Yet, history has shown (with the Vietnam protests being the most notable example) that popular movements can affect the US government’s actions abroad.  It’s the very important work of the people of South Korea and the US to force their respective governments to bring the region closer to peace and reunification, and take steps away from military confrontations with North Korea and China.

Paul Gottinger is a writer and activist from Madison, Wisconsin.  

This article originally appeared at whiterosereader.org

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Paul Gottinger is a journalist based in Madison, WI whose work focuses on the Middle East. He can be reached via Twitter @paulgottinger or email: paul.gottinger@gmail.com

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