South Korean President Park Geun-hye stakes her political legacy on improving inter-Korean relations by leading a new government body tasked with preparing for unification. Park outlined proposals for better inter-Korean relations and a path toward unification in a recent speech in Germany.

Park’s so-called Trust Politik policy toward North Korea marks a clear departure from the strategy employed by her predecessor Lee Myung-bak, who distanced himself from inter-Korean rapprochement, seeking the dissolution of the Unification Ministry upon beginning his term.

“Now more than ever, South and North Korea must broaden their exchange and cooperation,” said President Park after receiving an honorary doctorate from the Dresden University of Technology. “What we need is not one-off or promotional events, but the kind of interaction and cooperation that enables ordinary South Koreans and North Koreans to recover a sense of common identity as they help each other out,” she said.

In contrast the liberal administrations of Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung sought increased engagement with North Korea through the provision of both humanitarian aid and economic assistance, without linking those issues to denuclearization. Lee Myung-bak’s demand of reciprocity from Pyongyang, and progress on denuclearization pre-conditioning aid and cooperation, saw strains develop in inter-Korean relations, affairs that had seen more than its share of ups and downs.

“Park Geun-hye’s trust building process wants to stop this vicious cycle,” says Choi Jin-wook from the Korea Institute for National Unification. “We can make dramatic development right now, if we provide a huge scale of aid to North Korea, but we are not going to do that,” adds Choi. We are going to make very steady progress by building up trust between the two Koreas.”


Choi Jin-wook on Park Geun-hye and North Korea from Korea News Online on Vimeo.

South Korea already has several bodies devoted to inter-Korean affairs, including the Ministry of Unification, the National Unification Advisory Council and the Korea Institute for National Unification. Park’s new committee will consist of about 50 experts chosen from both the public and private sectors.

The Park administration’s engagement with North Korea is not conditioned on immediate progress on the nuclear issue, but there are limits.

“We can’t go forward too much, if the nuclear issue is not resolved,” says Choi a lead researcher at the Unification institute.

By delinking denuclearization progress Park’s policy steps out of coordination with the United States. Ironically, it’s a conservative South Korean leadership softening its approach to North Korea in contrast to the Democratic Barack Obama administration.

“U.S. policy toward North Korea is very strict, to not talk to North Korea without North Korea’s sincere attitude towards its nuclear weapons program,” says Choi. “At the same time, the U.S. doesn’t want to see military tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” adds the North Korea expert. “In that context, I think the U.S. doesn’t like South Korea’s policy toward North Korea.”

The big question here is whether South Korea can influence U.S. policy toward North Korea. Professor Ahn Yinhay favors a structural analysis of international relations, in which super structural relations between superpowers dictate relations between respective allies in the substructure. So improvement in Chinese-U.S. relations dictate potential détente on the Korean Peninsula. Ahn borrows a Chinese proverb to demonstrate the strange bedfellows made by North and South Korea.

“They are sleeping in the same bed, but they have different dreams,” says the Korea University professor describing the contradicting visions of détente in Seoul and Pyongyang. Pyongyang seeks direct negotiations and a peace treaty with the United States, while South Korea considers itself the logical interlocutor between North Korea and the international community and dreams of unification under its terms.

With the conservative South Korean president chairing the new unification committee there are concerns it will take too conservative an approach and will take power from other North Korea related bodies. Park’s hands-on management of ministerial affairs came to light in the recent live broadcast of the first ministerial meeting on deregulation, over which she presided.

While the president’s North Korea policy may include the provision of humanitarian aid, some shipments of aid by civic groups have been held up by the government. Under the May 24 measures initiated by Lee Myung-bak following the sinking of the Cheonan in March 2010, rice, corn, and fertilizer cannot be provided to North Korea because they may be diverted to the military. Although Park has said aid will be increased, a current initiative to provide a million tons of fertilizer to the North failed to gain the necessary approval from the Unification Ministry, “Now is not the time to send fertilizer aid,” said minister Ryoo Kihl-jae. The administration says it is reviewing the matter.

Meanwhile the South Korean political left struggles to find common ground on inter-Korean affairs, with Ahn Chul-soo reportedly flip flopping over the recognition of key inter-Korean agreements, which Democratic Party leaders wish to enshrine in the new liberal coalition party platform.

Although Park has indicated denuclearization is not a pre-condition for the improvement of ties and increased humanitarian aid, the South Korean president frequently emphasizes the need for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons, angering Pyongyang. But until joint U.S.-South Korea military drills wrap up April 18, the harsh rhetoric heard coming from North Korea will likely continue, and rapprochement on the Korea Peninsula remain on hold.