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Assessing Park Geun-hye’s One Year in Office

On 25 February 2014, Park Geun-hye completed one year in office as President of South Korea. Much as it was expected, she had trounced her opponent Moon Jae-In of the Democratic United Party and stormed into the office as the 11th President of Asia’s fourth largest economy. It is time to assess how her first year has been different from that of her predecessor Lee-Myung Bak. It is prudent to identify the issues that she has handled so far and then assess how far she has failed or succeeded to deliver. These are (a) addressing the domestic economic issues, (b) dealing with its neighbor, Japan, with which South Korea has territorial disputes and history issues such as comfort women; (c) handling the North Korean issue of nuclear weapon program and push through her “trustpolitik”; (d) dealing with China and finally (e) deal with its security guarantor the United States.

Domestic economy

In her inauguration speech, Park had promised to revive the economy and give more emphasis on national security and social welfare. But she faltered in her promise to support the elderly by giving a monthly allowance of 200,000 won ($186), something similar the Democratic Party of Japan promised in its election manifesto without making proper provision how to get the funds to meet the promises when it trounced the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan in 2009, only to be discredited soon and lose power. Park did not make proper assessment how it would be hard for future generation to share the burden. Park, therefore, revised her plan to offer means-tested payments for the elderly. The opposition finds a ready reason to accuse Park for breaking her election promise. According to reports, South Korea ranks worst among the 30 member of the OECD countries in terms of poverty rates among senior citizens.{1}

Education is the backbone for any country to progress. Again, here Park failed to deliver to reduce college tuition fee and deferred to 2015 because of lack of funds. “South Korea has the third highest tuition among OECD countries”.{2} This has made her unpopular among the youth as they face difficulties to get jobs. Even her predecessor had made lofty promise of education reforms in 2007 but had failed. When the Park government established a new subsidiary for the state run railways operator KORAIL, the rail workers’ union perceived the move as a precursor to privatization and went on a three-week strike, thereby paralyzing rail network. As a result, her approval rating dipped under 50 per cent.

Her “pledge to reform big conglomerates and unfair business practices by limiting the power of owners” also remains wanting. Opposition has blamed Park of easing business regulation from chaebol firms, thereby thwarting fair competition in the market. After one year, how does President Park hope to address gross income inequality and offer employment to the educated youth and thereby arrest social discontent in her second year in office?

How does Park’s report card compare with her predecessors at similar moment? Given that her approval rating bounced back to 56 per cent as she entered the second year in office, her first year performance was not that bad.{3} Fortunately, the domestic economy has shown signs of recovery. Buoyed by this, Park unveiled on 25 February a three-year economic plan to rebalance the export-reliant economy by investing $3.7 billion on start-ups, which would boost domestic spending and create more jobs for young people and women. By doing this, Park hopes the country will register an economic growth rate of at least four per cent by 2017. The economy grew by 2.7 per cent in 2013.

While unveiling her grandiose plan, Park said that as Asia’s fourth largest economy, South Korea faces a widening imbalance with the export and manufacturing sector led by powerful conglomerates, totally overshadowing the domestic consumer market and services industry. She described the rapidly aging population of the country as a “silent, looming disaster” as this threatens to slash the workforce and impose a heavy welfare cost.

According to her three-year plan, Park government envisages an expenditure of 4 trillion won ($3.7 billion) by 2017 to help small start-ups and increase spending on research and development to the equivalent of 5 per cent of the GDP from the current 4 per cent.{4} She also hopes her policies will help ease an array of regulations on five key service industries such as health care, education, finance, tourism and software. In stressing her avowed policy for more gender equality, Park observed: “All aspects of our economy, including domestic spending and exports, manufacturing and services, big conglomerates and small and medium firms and the capital city and the rest of the country, should show balanced growth so that all South Koreans will be able to enjoy fruits of growth.” {5}

However, these policy targets are yet to be tested and the people are still wary of their success. If Park’s popular rating rose as she entered the second year in office, it was not because of her success in handling domestic economic policy but because of her handling the country’s foreign policy. The leading daily, Dong-A Ilbo, compared her economic team to “a student who is full of motivation but knows little about how to study and ends up being an underachiever.” {6}

There are simmering discontents at home, which Park must not overlook. In order to realize her “grand national unity”, she has to take the opposition on board by keeping constant communication while taking decision on key issues. Besides the rail workers’ strike, a group of Catholic priests are demanding her resignation. The Korea Times observed in an editorial: “The governing camp may cast these away as the complaints of minorities. But these voices of protests can magnify into a popular uproar if the president and her aides fail to read voters’ minds, blinded by her popularity rating.” {7}

Dealing with Japan

Japan-South Korea relations have remained problematic since the end of World War II. Differences on historical and territorial issues have prevented a bilateral summit meeting between the heads of the two countries. Broadly, there are six major issues on which differences continue to exist. These are: (a) so-called “comfort women”, (b) views of history, (c) South Koreans who were drafted to work for Japanese companies during World War II, (d) signing of General Security Information Agreement, (e) Negotiation on Japan-South Korea economic partnership agreement, and (f) territorial (Takeshima/Dokdo) island issue.

Willy-nilly, the North Korean issue has made the United States to take initiative to mediate between the two countries and as a result there are signs of improvement in ties. But there are a number of issues to be tackled between the two nations, such as the territorial row over the Takeshima/Dokdo islets. So far Japan is concerned, it is keen to keep the door for dialogue open and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has remained pro-active on this matter. On 17 February, Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki met South Korea’s ambassador to Japan Lee Byung Kee to deliver a message that the two nations should initiate dialogue. The next day, the Foreign Ministry’s Asia and Oceania Affairs Bureau director-general Junichi Ihara proposed to Cho Tae Yong, South Korea’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, that Japan-US-South Korea talks at the level of bureau chiefs be held. Japan thought appropriate to take such moves as it felt the time was opportune following the US urging that both the nations should settle their bilateral differences in a cordial manner.

During his visit to South Korea on 13 February, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se to improve Japan-South Korea relations before President Barack Obama visits the two nations on 23-23 April 2014. Obama too is expected to urge Japan and South Korea to improve bilateral relations to avoid further deterioration of the ties between the two US allies. The US is concerned that so long as the situation in North Korea remains unstable, a friendly relationship between Japan and South Korea is all the more necessary.

Both Japan and South Korea are worried about the internal fragility of North Korea. If the power base of the First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea Kim Jong-un weakens, the possibility of another armed provocation to fend off internal discontent cannot be ruled out. The deteriorating Japan-South Korea bilateral ties has also adversely impacted on the economic side of the relationship, with Japanese investment in South Korea dropping by 40 per cent on a year-on-year basis. Also, negotiations on an economic partnership agreement that started in 2003 have remained stalled since 2004. {8}

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo took the opportunity to mend ties with South Korea in 2013 when the new president was inaugurated and sent former Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga, a LDP member, to South Korea as his special envoy to meet with Park. Park, however, has refused to hold a bilateral summit and continues to criticize Japan. While the Abe government is keen to hold a bilateral summit without conditions, South Korea is adamant that pending resolution of other sensitive issues, a summit would not be possible. South Korea has demanded that Japanese government should “take sincere measures to resolve” the “comfort women” issue, women forced into wartime brothels by Japan.

As Park brings in issues on the perception of history involving Japan into her diplomacy, this escalation of ant-Japanese assertion makes it more difficult to improve ties between the two countries. In a speech she delivered on 1 March 2014 at a ceremony to mark the anniversary of Korea’s 1919 uprisings against Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule, Park urged Japan to make “a courageous decision” over issues. She reminded Japan that there are still 55 grandmothers (comfort women) and the wounds inflicted on them “must be healed”.{9} It was for the first time Park publicly commented on the comfort women issue and urged the Japanese government to settle it.

It was her father, President Park Chung-hee, a former officer in the Imperial Japanese Army, who normalized diplomatic relations between the two countries in December 1965 despite strong domestic opposition. Now Park has taken a tough stance towards Japan on historical issues such as the use of Korean sex slaves by the Imperial Japanese armed forces in the 1930s and 1940s. In a speech she delivered at Tsinghua University in Beijing in June 2013, she remarked that “cooperation in the political and security fields in Northeast Asia was not making much progress because of “emotional conflict and distrust” over issues of history and security – an apparent shot at Japan”. {10}

Japan contends that compensation for wartime comfort women was legally settled by the 1965 bilateral Agreement Concerning the Settlement of Problems in Regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation when the two countries normalized diplomatic relations. Seoul wants Abe to adhere to a 1995 statement by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and a 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, which he made the statement based on the testimony of former comfort women. The Japanese government created on humanitarian grounds the Asian Women’s Fund, through which former comfort women were provided atonement money, and even a letter of apology from then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was issued.

Even while the Abe government has initiated a move to examine the testimony as it feels that the testimony was not supported by documents, some groups in South Korea have pursued Japan’s legal responsibility over the issue. Unfortunately, Abe’s nationalistic actions as perceived by observers and in particular his visit on 26 December 2013 to the Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines Japan’s war dead as well as Class-A war criminals, provoked reactions from Korea and China. Even the US expressed disappointment as the visit is only fanning distrusts. His stance on rewriting the 1993 statement by Kono that coercion was used at “comfort stations” and that the sex slave system damaged the honour and dignity of recruited women is not going to contribute to bilateral ties.

Also, the issue of compensation claims made from the Japanese companies by the South Korean plaintiffs is pending in the South Korean court. The plaintiffs are claiming they were forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II and must therefore be compensated. A judicial verdict in their favour is most likely and if that happens, Japan-South Korea relations may see another spell of turbulence.

Dealing with North Korea

After taking office, Park resolved to move away from her predecessor’s hard line North Korea policies. Instead, she made concerted effort to deepen engagement with Pyongyang, offering a trust-building process. Has her soft approach towards the northern neighbor yielded any result? The past year’s developments show that there is hardly any change in the response from the North; on the contrary, the situation has deteriorated for any constructive dialogue.

Surprisingly, the North Korean issue did not figure as an election issue, though it always remains as a challenge for any South Korean President. Though Park announced her “trustpolitik” towards the North, tensions immediately returned when Pyongyang conducted a nuclear test in February 2013 and since then the Northeast Asian region has remained tense and volatile.

After tensions mounted, Pyongyang cut off the communication hotlines with Seoul and shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Such measures signaled a new low for the inter-Korea relationship. This was followed by frequent threats of war and belligerent language against the US and South Korea. After this spiral of heightened tensions, things cooled down slightly. The industrial complex was opened again and talks to reunite families divided by the Korean War started. But at the last moment this was indefinitely postponed in September after the North accused Seoul of provocations. When talks resumed for the reunions to take place in February 2014, the planned joint military drills between the US and South Korea again threatened further postponement.

It appears that there is internal discontentment in North Korea and the regime is unstable. The execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, seemed to be a desperate move to send a message across the country that stability to the regime will be ensured at any cost. Jang was perceived to be pro-reform and China saw in him the only door to introduce economic reforms in North Korea. Being Kim’s mentor, Jang had emerged virtually as the No. 2 most powerful man in the country. But in a country where dynastic politics is the rule, there could never be a No.2 in the hierarchy. Such internal disturbances threaten Park’s policy of engagement to become even harder. Jang’s conviction and quick execution even shocked its foremost ally China. In view of the mounting international opprobrium over his highhandedness, further compounded by Michael Kirby’s report on rampant human rights violations in North Korea, there is a possibility that Kim will launch another nuclear or missile test in the first half of 2014 to divert attention from his growing unpopularity. South Korea sees the new situation as “grave” and is making preparations for all possibilities.

What should President Park do under this circumstance? The events in 2013 demonstrate that Park’s policy of containment and military pressure did not work. This would leave Park with no other option than to pursue a policy similar to her immediate predecessor, though those would be less like that of former presidents Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun. The long term goal of unification will remain though, notwithstanding the North’s recalcitrance. Her carrot and stick policy towards the North would continue.

Such soft paddling was demonstrably clear when Park quickly approved a shipment of $988,000 worth of medicine and powdered milk for North Korea and promised more humanitarian aid following the reunions of families in February, held after three years in Mount Kumgang, North Korea. Park sees this reunion as one of her “trust building” projects.{11} This was the 19th since 2000 and is considered an important measure in bringing together a small number of tens of thousands of Koreans waiting to see loved ones living over the border. Following the three-year-long Korean War that divided the peninsula between a communist North and capitalist south, many families became permanently separated. They were unable even to communicate by mail or phone and most even did not know whether their relatives were alive or dead. Therefore, these reunions are extremely emotional moments as they meet for few hours to be separated again, never to know if they meet ever again in life.

In the past, conservative presidents such as her immediate predecessor drastically cut South Korea’s bountiful aid to the impoverished North as they grew frustrated with Pyongyang’s continued provocations and its nuclear weapons program despite years of aid and investment. Relations nosedived further when Kim Jong-un threatened war after sanctions were imposed to punish his government for a nuclear test in 2013.

Even when such peace moves were taking place raising hope for better relationships in the future, North Korea test-fired four short-range missiles into the sea on 27 February in an apparent show of force to coincide with US-South Korea joint military exercise. With an estimated range of 200 kms, these missiles were fired off the east coast of North Korea.{12} North Korea carries out short-range missile tests on a fairly routine basis, and has used them before to display its anger at the annual military exercises. These tests were, however, unlikely to trigger a significant rise in military tensions. The South Korea-US annual drills kicked off on 24 February. Pyongyang opposes these drills and views them as rehearsals for invasion, whereas South Korea and the US claim these are purely of defensive nature. In 2014, they overlapped with the end of the first reunions and the drills threatened for a while if the reunions would ever take place. Pyongyang had initially insisted that the joint exercises be postponed until after the reunion finished. But Seoul refused and in a rare concession, the North allowed the family gatherings on its territory to go ahead as scheduled. It is to be seen if Park can leverage this opportunity to her advantage to deepen inter-Korean dialogue.

Dealing with China

For historical reasons, South Korea feels a special kind of relationship with China. In the past, China was Korea’s security guarantor. Lately, China has emerged as a special ally of North Korea. For its own strategic reasons, China is keeping North Korea afloat by providing economic aid and has not been able to stop the North from its nuclear program despite it hosted the Six Party Talks. China has also come on the way of the international community whenever it has tried to punish the North for its misdeeds and nuclear weapon program.

Emboldened by South Korea making noise on the comfort women issue, China has too started making similar noise by joining forces over historical issues concerning Japan. Notwithstanding China’s recent belligerence and assertiveness, China has become increasingly significant to South Korea. China has developed a kind of economic relationship with South Korea that it is an envy of the world. The total value of South Korea’s trade with China has now surpassed its combined trade with the US and Japan. The number of Chinese visitors to South Korea also surpassed Japanese visitors in 2013.{13}

Both South Korea and China share the same historical perception in their relationship with Japan. The shadow of the past continues to affect some way or other their respective relationship with Japan, no matter how deep the economic content of the ties may be. Even on the North Korean issue, South Korea prefers to work with the Washington and Beijing to the exclusion of Tokyo.

Emboldened by South Korea’s tough stance against Japan on historical issues, China had too added another feather to its belligerence stance on Asian issues by allowing former Chinese workers and others who called for an apology and compensation to file a damage suit with the Beijing court against two Japanese businesses. They claim they were forcibly brought to Japan in wartime and made to work under severe labour conditions. This single instance could shake the very foundation of Japan-China relations, depending on how it is handled.

The Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga says that “there is no reparation issue left pending between Japan and China, including those concerning individual demands for reparations”.{14} Japan claims that in the Japan-China joint statement signed in 1972 to mark the normalization of bilateral relations, the Chinese government declared its relinquishment of reparation demands for damage related to war. It is not clear if the Chinese court, which is under the Chinese Communist Party, will admit the case and if it does, it will be the first Chinese reparation case against a Japanese company over alleged forced relocation and labour. It will also open a Pandora box as many more individual claims will be filed against Japanese firms. It is believed that there are about 40,000 Chinese who were forced to work in Japan in wartime. Japan would find itself in a tricky situation as the South Koreans and the Chinese seem determined to embarrass Japan over court battles. The Yomiuri Shimbun editorial observed: “The Japanese government should support the firms against which damages claim was filed. To China, South Korea and the international community, Tokyo must strongly argue the invalidity of rekindling issues that have already been settled legally.”{15} Will Park be rejoicing at Japan’s discomfiture over Chinese stance on Japan? This is not a good sign for peace in Northeast Asia.

South Korea could take comfort from the Chinese announcement that no matter what Pyongyang does, it will never allow a peninsular war ever again and that its goal of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula remains unchanged. China conveyed this stern message through Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin during his four-day visit to North Korea in late February 2014. The Chinese statement said that “China adheres to the goal of denuclearisation of the Peninsula, maintaining peace and stability on the Peninsula and solving problems through dialogue and negotiation. China will never allow war or chaos on the Peninsula”. This was for the first time a senior Chinese official had publicly stated his country’s views. Liu made his remarks during a meeting with senior North Korean officials, including Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi conveyed similar remarks to John Kerry during his visit to Beijing in February.

As it transpires from recent developments, Japan-South Korea relationship during Park’s presidency will encounter further turbulence. Park’s Japan policy may be in tune with the demands of the domestic constituency. If her anti-Japan stance continues, can Japan have any choice to mend fence with Korea? It is here, the US as the common ally for both has a huge role to prevail upon its both allies to see that a policy of accommodation and eschewing a confrontationist path is desirable for the sake of Northeast Asian security.

Ties with the US

The US role of being South Korea’s security guarantor shall remain unchanged for quite some time. So long as the North Korean issue remains unresolved, the US presence in Northeast Asia will continue. On the contrary, China’s recent belligerence and assertiveness, coupled with the differences between its two allies – Japan and South Korea – is reinforcing Obama’s Asia “pivot” policy. Under the circumstance, one cannot expect any change in Park’s policy towards the US.

Obama’s Asian tour from 22-23 April 2014 will underscore his administration’s policy of placing importance on the Asia-Pacific region. Originally South Korea was not in President’s itinerary. The Park government urged the US to include a stop in Seoul during his Asian tour. This was out of concern that other countries would otherwise think that Washington pays little attention to the country. During his visit to South Korea in February, John Kerry had urged both South Korea and Japan to sort out their differences on the territorial and history issues before Obama visits the two countries. That, of course, is unlikely to happen so soon. From his side, Obama too is likely to urge both Japan and South Korea to improve bilateral relations to avoid further deterioration of the ties between them. The North Korea and China factors would continue to bind the Park government closely tied with the US.

Assessment

The Korea Herald in a recent editorial, reproduced in The Yomiuri Shimbun on 2 March, aptly summarizes Park’s performance during the first year in office. It notes that when she took office, she mentioned the words “people” and “we” 379 and 310 times respectively, implying thereby that she will take the people on board towards building a “100 per cent South Korea”, where happiness of the people would be the ultimate goal ,{17} something similar to Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness concept. That she floundered could be deciphered from the single fact that she remained “uncommunicative” to the opposition parties and other critics, suggesting that she could do no wrong. Was it something she carries from her father’s gene who ruled the country ruthlessly during his time? The economy has not shown much sign of recovery. However, she scores a point in handling foreign affair issues and this was reflected in souring her popularity rating.

If Park is serious in implementing the three-year blueprint that she unveiled to lift the economy, she has to shed some of her inflexible attitude and secure the cooperation of the opposition or else the opposition can play spoilsport by blocking the passage of important bills. Park also needs to craft her policy in cooperation with the opposition so that the North Korean issue can be dealt with effectively, thereby contribute to securing regional security.

(The Writer Dr. Rajaram Panda, is The Japan Foundation Fellow at Reitaku University, Japan. E-mail: rajaram.panda@gmail.com)

1} Justin McDonnell, “Park Geun-hye’s troubled year”, 1 January 2014, http://thediplomat.com/2014/01/park-geun-hyes-troubled-year/ 2} Ibid. 3}“The second year in for President Park”, The Korea Times, 23 February 2014. 4}“Park unveils 3-year economic plan”, The Yomiuri Shimbun, 26 February 2014. 5}Ibid. 6}Quoted in “Park unveils 3-year plan to rebalance economy”, Gulf News, 25 February 2014, http://www.gulf-times.com/business/191/details/382497/park-unveils-3-yr-plan-to-rebalance-economy 7}“The second year in for President Park”, n.3. 8}Takashi Nakagawa and Junichi Toyoura, “Japan-S. Korean summit meeting has yet to occur”, The Yomiuri Shimbun, 26 February 2014. 9} “Tokyo should accept that Park will continue her anti-Japan stance”, The Yomiuri Shimbun, editorial, 2 March 2014. 10}“An Abe-Park dialogue needed”, The Japan Times, editorial, 1 March 2014. 11}Choe Sang-hun, “South Korea aids North as Families are Reunited”, The New York Times, 21 February 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/22/world/asia/south-korea-gives-aid-to-north-amid-family-reunions.html?_r=0 12}“N. Korea test fires four short range missiles”, The Guardian, 27 February 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/27/north-korea-fires-short-range-missiles 13}“Tokyo should accept that Park will continue her anti-Japan stance”, The Yomiuri Shimbun, editorial, 2 March 2014. 14}“Chinese damages suit against Japan firms threatening to harm bilateral ties”, The Yomiuri Shimbun, editorial, 28 February 2014 15}Ibid. 16}“China tells North Korea it will never allow peninsula war”, 20 February 2014, http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2014/02/20/China-tells-North-Korea-it-will-never-allow-peninsular-war/UPI-10311392876480/#ixzz2uP43PESp 17} “Park’s goals after 1st year in office remain elusive”, The Korea Herald, editorial/Asia News Network, reproduced in The Yomiuri Shimbun, 2March 2014.

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