The 18th South Korean presidential election ended with the victory of the conservative candidate Park Geun Hye, something that appears to prove that the majority of South Koreans want stability more than they want change. However, it also reveals that differences of ideology, region and generation are deeply rooted in South Korea, and that the newly elected president has a long way to go to overcome these three challenges in the next five years.
Park has promised to be a unifying leader. To do so, she must not only work with her supporters but also her opponents. It will not be easy to embrace both. Needless to say, North Korea will make it even harder to find solutions.
According to the constitution, North Korea is a part of South Korean territory. In other words, the South Korean president is the president of the entire Korean Peninsula. Unless or until the issue of unification is ruled out of national policy, unification will remain one of the biggest historical tasks and responsibilities of any Korean government. It is not a problem that will go away simply by not being mentioned. Even if North Korea were not in official documents, that would not mean that it would cease to exist. South Korea must become actively involved in the North Korea problem, find solutions and eliminate the overhanging security threat.
During the election process, Park promised a more forward-looking policy towards North Korea than that of the Lee Myung Bak administration. In particular, she said that holding talks in pursuit of an apology for the events that led to the May 24th Measures of 2010 would be an appropriate compromise position. South Koreans all agree that North Korean provocations must not be forgiven lightly. The question is what can be done to prevent their recurrence. Obviously, it is best to ensure that the North Korean leadership is aware that it is useless to engage in more death and destruction, and that the only way forward is to live in peace with their South Korean brethren. To do this, South Korea must first make North Korea feel secure, and the best way to do that is to talk to them.
Even if only for the sake of the livelihoods that are at stake, cooperation with North Korea is important. South Korea needs to prevent further provocations if it is to attract more foreign investment to its economy. Importing North Korean mineral resources has the potential to reduce costs. South Korean construction companies could work on North Korean infrastructure, and through this create more jobs. But all Park’s plans will prove impossible without North Korea’s consent, and this makes dialogue very important.
Conversation with the North requires a shift in thinking, but it also requires a paradigm-shifting trigger. One such trigger could be to invite a North Korean delegation to the presidential inauguration on February 25th next year. North Korea may also be expecting this from Park, a woman who even met Kim Jong Il herself back in 2002. If it were to happen, today’s ideological confrontation borne of mutual distrust could be somewhat eased, and an era of inter-Korean unity might, just might, be given a chance to begin.