South Korea as bridge-builder

By Brahma Chellaney, JoongAng Ilbo, January 21, 2013, page 6

Park Geun-hye broke through South Korea’s glass ceiling to win the presidency. But having overcome the gender barrier, she now faces important domestic and foreign-policy challenges. How she handles those challenges, including slowing economic growth and sharpening geopolitical competition in Northeast Asia, will determine if South Korea’s international clout will continue to rise.

Coincidentally, she is taking over as president at a time when Japan has elected a new government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping is assuming the presidency in China. The overlapping power transitions in East Asia’s three main economies promise to mark a defining moment in the region’s harsh geopolitics.

Xi is regarded by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as its own man, while Abe is a vocal nationalist. The political transitions, coupled with the brewing territorial spats between China and Japan and South Korea and Japan as well as the underlying tensions between the two Koreas, create new risks to regional peace, stability, and prosperity. In this setting, Ms. Park will need to tread cautiously, seeking to expand mutually beneficial ties with Beijing, Tokyo, and Washington while addressing domestic challenges, including the growing income disparity and a generational divide, as reflected in the presidential election’s voting patterns.

Asia’s other major economy, India, is expecting Ms. Park’s election to accelerate cooperation and trade between Seoul and New Delhi. Her election has received wide coverage in India, a country that has a long tradition of powerful women figures in politics.

Washington, for its part, is delighted that voters in South Korea and Japan have elected conservative, pro-American leaders, raising hope that America will be able to work with its two closest allies in East Asia to ease the security issues that are troubling this economically dynamic region. The Obama administration, however, recognizes that the emotionally charged relations between Tokyo and Seoul can prove a serious impediment. A reminder of that was the decision of departing President Lee Myung-bak last summer to cancel the scheduled signing of a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan and scrap a bilateral plan to finalize a military-related Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement.

If Ms. Park is to build a historically positive legacy in her five-year term as president, she will need to be different than Lee Myung-bak in both style and substance, even though he is her colleague from the Saenuri Party. She will need to have a more consensual style than Lee, nicknamed “the Bulldozer” from his career as a construction industry executive. And in terms of substance, she must seek to build more cooperative ties with North Korea and Japan.

Lee pointlessly roiled the relationship with Japan in his last year in year, while his policy approach toward North Korea right from 2008 onward only encouraged greater belligerence and defiance on the part of Pyongyang. Not only did inter-Korean contact and cooperation suffer, but the North carried out provocative actions, including missile tests, and ratcheted up bellicose rhetoric. Relations between the two Koreas sunk to a low. Pyongyang’s recent space launch served as a fresh reminder of its determination to defy even United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Fortunately, Ms. Park has already signaled that she will pursue a more pragmatic and balanced foreign policy than her predecessor. For example, she has vowed to tread the middle path on North Korea between unconditional engagement and uncompromising chastisement. She has even indicated that she would try to hold talks with the North’s young leader Kim Jong-un.

Ms. Park’s more moderate approach could undercut the Obama administration’s sanctions-only North Korean policy just when Pyongyang has signaled open defiance of U.S. and UN pressure. But it is in South Korea’s own long-term interest to build economic cooperation and other contact with the North so that when the regime in Pyongyang eventually collapses, the costs of Korean reunification will not be terribly high.

More broadly, the central challenge in Northeast Asia is to get rid of the baggage of history that weighs down the relationships between all the actors. The rise of nationalism in the region with growing prosperity has only compounded the historical issues.

Booming trade in the region has failed to mute or moderate territorial and other disputes; on the contrary, it has only sharpened regional geopolitics and unleashed high-stakes brinkmanship. Economic interdependence cannot deliver regional stability unless rival states undertake genuine efforts to mend their political relations.

China, for example, has launched a new campaign of attrition against Japan over the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands. By sending patrol ships frequently to the waters around the islands since September — and by violating the airspace over them recently — Beijing has sought to challenge Japan’s decades-old control over them, despite the risk that an incident at sea or in the air between the two sides could spiral out of control.  Meanwhile, a continuing informal Chinese boycott of Japanese goods has led to a fall in Japan’s exports to China.

China’s new assertiveness has fueled a nationalist backlash in Japan. But that is only fanning nationalism in China, where the Communist Party has already turned nationalism as the legitimating credo of its monopoly on power to compensate for the decline of the state ideology. Consequently, the two countries find themselves in a vicious circle from which they are finding it difficult to escape.

The risks posed by increasing nationalism and militarism to peace in East Asia have already been highlighted by the rise of a new Chinese dynasty of “princelings,” or sons of revolutionary heroes who have widespread contacts in the military. In fact, what distinguishes Xi, a former military reservist, from China’s other civilian leaders is his strong relationship with the PLA, whose rising clout has underpinned China’s increasingly muscular foreign policy.

Against this background, Ms. Park’s test is to prove a visionary, dynamic leader who has the foresight and courage to chart a more stable and prosperous future for her country and region. Her lasting legacy could be to boost South Korea’s economic and foreign-policy influence and turn it into a bridge-builder between Japan and China, between China and the United States, and between Russia and Japan.

Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author of “Asian Juggernaut” (Harper, 2010) and “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press, 2011), which won the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award.

(Translated and published in Korean. © JoongAng Ilbo, 2013.)