In a move that demonstrates that the South Korean opposition Grand National Party (GNP) is comfortable flexing its international muscles, dynamic GNP leader Park Geun Hye announced an official trip to the Peoples Republic of China. This could be a dramatic new development in unraveling the Gordian knot of North Korean nuclear negotiations that have been stalled by convoluted machinations by all sides. Till now South Korean spokesmen came mostly from President Roh Moo Hyun’s hard left-leaning Uri Party. Recall that Roh, as was his predecessor Kim Dae Jung, is a born-again appeaser who is willing to cut any possible deal with the rapacious regime of Kim Jong Il rather than have to face difficult, courageous decisions. Conversely, GNP leadership is approaching the issue from an entirely different point of view, demanding accountability and responsibility from North Korea.
It is appropriate that America focuses some attention on Ms Park. She is a substantive leader beginning to make her presence felt on a world stage. She is drawing significant attention in the gray, inward-looking world of Korean Peninsula politics. Surprising Westerners, Ms Park is a serious contender for the presidency in a male dominated culture. Be advised that Ms Park is no neophyte in dealing with difficult issues. As a fifty-something, extraordinarily bright, attractive daughter of the late military leader of South Korea, Park Chung Hee, she has undergone a rough initiation into the often violent world of North-South confrontation. Her mother, Yook Young Soo, was assassinated on August 15, 1974 by a North Korean terrorist posing as a Japanese businessman. The killer raced down the aisle of South Korea’s National Theater, wildly shooting a pistol at the stage while then President Park was reading an Independence Day address. Park Geun Hye’s mother was seated on stage and was hit by a stray bullet. She was highly loved by the Korean people, and is mourned to this day.
In a display of Korean toughness and commitment to duty that some Westerners find difficult to comprehend, her father stoically completed his address then dashed to the hospital. Park Geun Hye had to assume First Lady’s duties during a difficult, tragic period, when many of us were convinced that the assassination might be prelude to a second North Korean invasion. By 1976 America’s newly elected President Jimmy Carter threatened troop withdrawal from Korea compounding the uncertainty and instability of the times. These years were highly unsettled; a stressful period for Park Geun Hye and her father. In October 1979 President Park himself was felled by an assassin’s bullet, this time by his KCIA director, a long time friend and boyhood classmate. Losing both parents to murderers within five years meant that the world crashed down of Park Geun Hye. But she inherited a lot of her father’s toughness and proved more resilient than most anticipated.
Park Geun Hye brings a dimension of strength of character to the South Korean political scene that has been bereft of moral substance for almost a decade. Largely through her force of personality, great intelligence, and keen political sense, she has been able to pull together various opposition factions within the Grand National Party, galvanizing both the party and the public with the need to restore honesty and moral focus after a succession of failed presidential administrations. She has her work cut out for her.
The ruling parties since 1997 have capitulated completely to the Kim Jong Il regime in North Korea. Offering only a humiliating appeasement policy, both Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun have been venal and corrupt. They deliberately deceived the South Korean people in regard to the threat from North Korea, and tried to pretend that South Korea is nothing more than a mediator between America and North Korea. This move was characterized by former National Security Advisor Richard Allen as ‘extremely duplicitous.’ Both presidents bribed, cajoled, and entreated North Korea to come to the bargaining table knowing full well that Kim Jong Il was cheating on agreements, engaging in illegal activities, building nuclear weapons, and abusing his population in a most horrific manner. They callously risked the security of their own citizenry by ignoring Kim Jong Il’s weapons buildup, and abrogated national honor by willful disregard of the horrific oppression of the North Korean people.
The South Korean government discourages North Korean refugees from escaping the hellish existence they endure. South Korea has only grudgingly accepted a pathetically few refugees. The Kim-Roh presidencies have colluded with China in its policy of rights denial and forcible return of refugees. Further, and most shamefully, in the past two years the South Korean government has abstained from voting to condemn the North Koreans in the UN’s Human Rights Committee. This behavior is considered inexcusable cowardice by those who seek relief for the oppressed citizens of North Korea.
Ironically, it has been this craven, despicable, corrupt behavior by the ruling parties that has helped to energize the Grand National Party. Many citizens of South Korea have begun to find their consciences, despite an unseemly attachment to their consumer comfort items that they have been told would be lost with North-South reunification,. Scrape away the façade of materialism and the South Korean people are smart, tough, resilient, and care for their fellow Koreans. An appeasement-based policy can only play for so long before a backlash occurs.
The revitalization of the GNP is certainly part of that resurgence of politics of morality. Predicted success in upcoming elections will mean a swing back to the center by a political pendulum that has swung so far left since 1997 that it threatens to tip over the government. A large part of the GNP policy is economically focused, calling for increased opening of the domestic business sector through policies of transparency, lower taxes, and smoother bureaucratic regulatory policies. Additionally, the GNP has gained a lot of popular support – especially but not exclusively in the South Korean Christian community – by its emphasis on a moral policy in regard to escaping North Koreans.
High on Ms Park’s agenda when she makes the trip to Beijing is going to be human rights, especially regarding the need for China to adhere to treaties that it has freely signed regarding these refugees. North Korea openly flaunts imprisonment, torture, and execution of many of the refugees who are forcibly repatriated but unconscionably China continues to send them back. It has become an international human rights crisis that is only now coming to light, in part because of the impenetrability of China and North Korea.
Concomitantly, Park Geun Hye is certain to take a tough line regarding North Korea’s continued development of nuclear weapons, poison gas, and biological agents. This will be a change from State Department representatives who arrogantly ignore the will of both Congress and the President expressed in the North Korea Human Rights Act voted unanimously earlier this year. State spokesmen continue to separate human rights from nuclear issues. Unlike them, Park is going to place human rights reform on the same agenda as WMD discussions. Her visit is certain to draw a hostile response from South Korean officials and, embarrassingly, from our own American representatives also. However, for China, with a longer horizon than most countries, Park’s policy will have serious import as China weighs options concerning Korea, North and South.
China realizes that foreign policy initiatives are long term. It has visions of ultimately bringing Taiwan back into the sphere of Greater China just as it did with Hong Kong. A crisis in Korea could quickly undo gains China has made in this sector. Furthermore, China recognizes that it can deal with an economically dynamic South Korea – indeed its companies are among the largest investors in China. Beijing understands that continued democracy means that in only two more years another president will run South Korea. That the new winner could well be Park Geun Hye is not lost on the Chinese leadership. She is a force to be reckoned with and will demand attention.
For these reasons this trip by Park Geun Hye to China will no doubt give the Beijing leadership something additional to chew over regarding the sluggish Six Party talks. At best she may have a positive effect by encouraging the Chinese to toughen their stance toward Kim Jong Il and call him to task. At a minimum attention drawn to her visit will galvanize the South Korean opposition and add another sorely needed voice in the international outcry for justice for the oppressed people of North Korea.