Park Geun-hye

Strategic mistrust a useful ally in Korean Peninsula

Jae Ho Chung considers the security challenges facing northeast Asia's first female head of state

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 February, 2013, 2:52am

With new leaderships in place in China, Japan and South Korea, hopes are high about opportunities for better co-operation in East Asia. Expectations are particularly high for South Korea's Park Geun-hye, who will be inaugurated today as the first female head of state in northeast Asia.

Despite the hopes, challenges are more daunting than meet the eye. Whether Pyongyang's ballistic missile launch and third nuclear test constitute game changers remains to be assessed. But they would certainly reduce the scope of policy discretion for the new administration. Perhaps the only option remaining would be to hit at Pyongyang's "palace economy", without which the totalitarian regime would become mummified.

At this juncture comes the China variable. Will China's response be different this time by punishing North Korea? The answer is probably a "no".

Three obstacles prevent Beijing from having second thoughts about North Korea. First, as long as Beijing's projections for future relations with the US are bumpy, China will continue to keep its eastern neighbour under its arms. Second, China is not likely to change its strategic calculus vis-à-vis Pyongyang unless the Korea-US and US-Japan alliances are significantly readjusted. Third, China will stick to the current thinking so long as the Korean Peninsula lacks a stable mechanism for peace. None of these will be met very soon and, therefore, China's modus operandi is likely to remain unchanged.

Japan is another issue that can go sour rather easily. As it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish a "realist Japan" from a "revisionist Japan" in recent years, South Korea no longer sees Japan's rightist drift as mere mishaps by a handful of non-mainstream politicians but as a consistent trend. Hence, the new administration's Japan policy will face a steep hill, Park's intentions for a "grand reconciliation" notwithstanding.

What about the relationship with the US? With North Korea's threat deemed more serious, fierce debates are likely to be waged again on the transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean troops, now scheduled for 2015. Pressure may also mount for a better deal with Washington on the right to reprocess spent fuel, at least on a par with that of Japan.

A final suggestion for the Park administration: Don't be obsessed with the words "trust" or "confidence". Trust is important but there are many things in inter-state relations that cannot be resolved through trust alone. In fact, maintaining some strategic suspicion might be healthy in this cruel world of international politics.

Jae Ho Chung is a professor of international relations at Seoul National University and author of Between Ally and Partner: Korea-China Relations and the US