Conflict & Justice

South Korean election: What’s Kim Jong-un thinking?


South Korea's presidential candidates (left to right), Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party, Lee Jung-hee of the opposition Unified Progressive Party and Moon Jae-in of the main opposition Democratic United Party pose before a televised debate in Seoul on Dec. 10, 2012.


Kim Jae-Hwan

SEOUL, South Korea — It is an event that still shapes how North Korea approaches the outside world, one that will play into Kim Jong-un’s thinking when, on Wednesday, South Koreans vote for their next president.

In June 2000, the South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung, broke 50 years of isolation when he landed in Pyongyang for a historic meeting with his northern counterpart, Kim Jong-il. “I came here because I wanted to see you,” he announced to the North Korean people in a terse but now-famous line.

For many South Koreans, the summit signified that bellicose North Korea — a secluded, militaristic relic of the Cold War — was finally ready to take off its armor and join the community of nations. High hopes were abuzz over what appeared to be the precursor to an eventual Korean unification.

But critics charged that Kim’s razzle-dazzle, known as the “Sunshine Policy,” was a dud. His administration was later revealed to have channeled $180 million, via Hyundai, to the North Korean government a week before the meeting. North Korea justified the payment as reparation for Korean War “crimes” before it would agree to the summit.

The controversy revealed that, above all else, Pyongyang wanted money from South Korea to keep its dictatorship alive.

That’s what Kim Jong-un will probably be thinking on Wednesday. The regime “will start on the assumption that it can milk South Korea for money,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul.

Moon Jae-in: Sunshine 2.0?

With that mindset, North Korea will give a better grade to Democratic United Party (DUP) candidate Moon Jae-in. The former human rights lawyer is the underdog, trailing conservative candidate Park Geun-hye by 1.5 to 3 percentage points.

As a scion of the Sunshine era, Moon has street cred with Kim Jong-un. He was a former aide to Roh Moo-hyun, the president took the helm from Kim Dae-jung, continuing the push for reconciliation in the mid-2000s. The North remembers him more fondly than other presidents.

Today, Moon remains a left-winger. As a former pro-democracy activist who campaigned against military rule in the South, he’s friendlier towards Pyongyang. He has offered unconditional talks with the country, including a plan to restart all exchanges and commercial projects halted under the current president, Lee Myung-bak.

It’s a scenario that sounds like “Sunshine 2.0,” or, as Lankov called it, “Sunshine Lite.”

But that’s easier said than done. Twelve years after the summit, many South Koreans have lost patience with the Hermit State, bringing Pyongyang’s relations with both Washington and Seoul to a low point.

That’s because, ever since the right-wing president Lee took office in 2008, North Korea has been stepping up its brinkmanship.

President Lee’s anti-nuclear strategy, known as “Vision 3000,” would have provided economic assistance to the North in exchange for halting its nuclear program. But, says Lankov, “Any condition to aid is unacceptable to North Korea,” prompting the government to step up its attacks.

In 2010, Seoul accused the North of torpedoing and sinking a naval frigate, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Later that year, North Korea's military launched some 170 artillery shells into Yeonpyeong Island, a southern territory.

And as a reminder of its presence before the election, North Korea sent a satellite into orbit despite international protest last week. The US government says that the regime intends to use the asset to expand its nuclear program.

Park Geun-hye: Trustpolitik

Both the conservative Park Geun-hye and liberal Moon Jae-in want to move away from Lee’s combative style and step up engagement with North Korea.

But Park is taking a tougher approach. She calls it Trustpolitik, straddling a middle line between the Sunshine Policy and Lee’s grittier approach. “Sunshine,” she has claimed, failed to allay North Korea’s aggressive antics. But conditional engagement has not changed the North’s nutty mongering either.

In early December, Park called on the North to stop its planned rocket launch, and argued that unconditional aid would lead to “fake peace.”

Still, her stance goes easier on Kim Jong-un than President Lee did, and the North might have some hope for her. Park is familiar to North Koreans as a politician who dined with Kim Jong-il in 2002.

“This lady will bring back sunshine to the peninsula,” and the event will prove far more important than US President Barack Obama's recent reelection, said Felix Abt, the former head of the European Business Association in Pyongyang, a de-facto Chamber of Commerce in North Korea.

On the other hand, her father, Park Chung-hee, was the dictator of South Korea from 1961 to 1979. He was a fervently anti-communist strongman who oversaw the rapid growth in this once-poor backwater state.

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As a young adult in Japanese-administered Korea, the autocrat also served in the Japanese military, and oversaw an improvement in relations with Japan in the mid-1960s — placing him and, by proxy, possibly his daughter, in the inimical circle of pro-Japanese “collaborators” that the North Korean dynasty loathes.

Not everybody agrees that his militaristic efficiency will go hand-in-hand with the North’s worldview.

Although a Park presidency would probably bring a chance for improved ties with Lee’s departure, “Pyongyang still sees her basically as part of the same ‘rightist’ camp,” says Andrew Gilholm, head of Asia Analysis at the Control Risks Group, a political risk consultancy. “Any sustainable thaw in inter-Korean ties will depend more on leadership in the North than on a ‘Park factor.’”

Pyongyang’s bitter attitude towards the right wing is reflected in its propaganda mouthpieces. In a warning to Park’s Saenuri Party, the government wrote on Dec. 5 that “it is impossible … to remove the danger of a nuclear war from this land,” according to the independent website North Korea News.

Empty threats of nuclear war, obviously, are a problem, considering that Park is in the lead for Wednesday’s elections. Unlike his father in 2000, Little Kim probably won’t get the luxury of a Sunshine proponent running South Korea. His calculus will come down to pushing aside his disappointment and getting quick cash.