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Foreign Policy

Impact of DPRK satellite launch on ROK presidential election

Dec 31 , 2012

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) successfully launched a satellite into space on Dec 12, 2012, which was greeted with a variety of responses around the world.

Among the many commentators Jonathan D. Pollack, a senior researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in WashingtonD.C., put forward a theory that many people agreed with. He wrote in an article about his initial thoughts after the DPRK satellite launch that most observers did not expect Pyongyang to make the move before Dec 19, because it would reduce the chance of South Korean opposition candidate Moon Jae-in’s chance of winning the presidential election. Then the DPRK saw the possibility of Moon winning diminish and decided to go ahead with the original launch schedule, which it had supposedly postponed till Dec 29.

On the night of Dec 19 the result of the South Korean presidential election was announced: Park Geun-hye defeated Moon by winning 51.6 percent of the votes against the latter’s 48 percent and became the first woman president of the Republic of Korea (ROK). The result seemed to have confirmed Pollack’s view, but further study would raise more questions about its validity.

For a start, if the DPRK satellite launch did have a significant impact on the ROK residential election it would have featured prominently in the candidates’ policy agendas and debates, but the reality is that Park and Moon both focused on economic policies throughout the campaign stage and barely touched the DPRK satellite issue.

In fact, most South Koreans understand the DPRK armed forces already have medium and short-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets in the south and there is no way the north would ever use long-range missiles converted from the satellite carrier rockets on the ROK. If a candidate in the ROK presidential election talks a lot about the DPRK instead of focusing on domestic issues, why should South Koreans vote for him/her? That is why Park and Moon seldom discussed the DPRK satellite launch in their presidential election debates — because it had little effect on their chance of winning.

Secondly, if the DPRK’s action was indeed a significant factor in either Park’s or Moon’s odds of winning, their policy agendas would have looked very differently on north-related issues. But, the fact is Park’s proposal to “restore ties of mutual confidence first and then seek progress in the denuclearization of the KoreanPeninsula” is not really far from the “Sunshine Policy”, a brainchild of the late President Kim Dae-jung implemented by his successor Roh Moo-hyun. if anything, their DPRK policies are in sharp contrast to outgoing President Lee Myung-bak’s current stance.

Lee was a successful businessman before taking the plunge into politics and put some people with similar backgrounds in charge of foreign affairs after winning the presidency, declaring he would run the government in the same spirit that anchored his business philosophy. However,  those people lacked experience and information needed to produce DPRK policies of real insight and inspiration, which is why he chose to follow the US in demanding the DPRK abandon its nuclear arms program before discussing the improvement of bilateral ties. That policy stance led to a sudden surge of armed conflicts between the two sides that pushed them to the brink of war. Many South Koreans are very disappointed by their government’s foreign policies, so much so that Park had to take a different path in order to win the presidential election. After all, the two sides of the KoreanPeninsula are of the same nationality and the business philosophy simply does not work in this sentimental setting.

Park Geun-hye’s departure from Lee’s hardnosed DPRK stance may also have been inspired by her father, the late President Park Chung-hee, who was a military strongman but actually contributed to the improvement of the south-north relations.

On July 4, 1972 an event in the Korean Peninsula sent shockwaves around the world: the two sides issued a joint communiqué expressing the will to achieve national reunification under the principles of “self-determination, peaceful reunification and broad national unity”, in a process in which both DPRK leader Kim Il-sung and ROK President Park Chung-hee took part. A shame Park Chung-hee did not live to witness the further improvement of the north-south relations. He was assassinated in 1979.

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, on the basis of the principles mentioned above, the DPRK-ROK relations made further  progress, including the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the KoreanPeninsula in 1992 and a number of other important documents.

Although these achievements were wasted in the “nuclear crisis” some years later they nevertheless marked a significant milestone in the history of DPRK-ROK relations.

Park Geun-hye stayed away from public eye for a while after her father’s assassination and reemerged in the 1990s to continue pushing the cause of improving south-north relations set by her late father. She paid a visit to Pyongyang at the invitation of the DPRK government and met with the supreme leader of the north side — Kim Il-sung. Her victory in the ROK presidential election may usher in another period of better relations between the DPRK and ROK.

Peace and stability on the KoreanPeninsula is first and foremost the DPRK and ROK’s business. The past five years already proved the current ROK policy of “the DPRK abandoning its nuclear program first and the two sides working on mending bilateral ties later” did not work. Why cannot people give Park Geun-hye a chance to try and resume her late father’s DPRK policy, which seeks to restore the relationship of mutual confidence first and pursue progress in denuclearization of the KoreanPeninsula afterwards?

Gong Shaopeng is a professor at China Foreign Affairs University.

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