Ms Park Geun-hye, a conservative leader, was elected as South Korea’s new president in a general election last month and is due to take office in a few days’ time. And, while Northeast Asia may seem outside Australia’s field of direct security focus, South Korea is nevertheless going to be an important partner for Australia, as flagged in the Asian Century White Paper and the newly released National Security Strategy. Park has been known in the past for a tough stance on North Korea, having demanded a formal apology from the North for former acts of aggression and once rejected the idea of holding talks with the North ‘just for the sake of having a meeting’. While she won by a narrow margin of just 3.5%, the win signalled that perhaps the majority of South Koreans would prefer a harder-line security and defence policy to manage the North Korean threat and address rising tensions with Japan. There’s no doubt that Park has her work cut out for her with those issues while guiding South Korea through a potentially turbulent period as China and the United States increasingly vie for influence in North Asia and beyond.
Some analysts believe that Park will try to walk a middle ground between the hostile and conciliatory approaches towards North Korea of former governments, and will attempt to blend elements of both. So far, Park has opened dialogue with the North and agreed to continue providing food and medical aid. But she’s also said that North Korea’s nuclear threats ‘will not be tolerated’. So, she’s tougher than Moon who lost the race for the Presidency, but she’s not so tough that she won’t continue dialogue and aid. We’re yet to see whether Park will be effective in reigning in Northern aggression—in response to recent tightening of existing sanctions by the UNSC, the North has threatened to conduct further missile tests as well as a third nuclear weapon test. How Park reacts to a third nuclear test will be a test of her character and her policy.
Looking east, Park has the difficult task of improving relations with the newly-elected Abe government in Japan. South Korea-Japanese relations have soured recently over territorial claims and long-standing World War II grievances. Both South Korea and Japan have played a part in aggravating tensions: South Korea’s outgoing President made an ill-advised visit to the disputed Takeshima/Dokdo Islands in August last year while the incoming Japanese Prime Minister Abe called into question Japan’s accountability for recruiting Korean ‘comfort women’ during WWII. While these issues continue to rile the public, the South Korean and Japanese governments have more reasons to cooperate on security and defence issues than not, as they will be directly affected by nuclear developments in North Korea, an assertive China, and US–China rivalry.
For his part, Abe has tried to mend relations between the countries by sending a special envoy to Seoul. It doesn’t help, however, that activists in both countries protest attempts to improve the relationship (a South Korean man protested the arrival of Abe’s special envoy by stabbing himself in the stomach at Seoul’s Gimpo Airport). If Park wants to make progress on cooperative actions with Japan, she’ll need to quash the South Korean nationalist sentiment that was stirred up in the lead up to the elections, and fast. Similarly, she’ll need to play down territorial and other conflicts and play up the benefit of security cooperation with Japan. With South Korea and Japan being close economic and security partners of Australia, it’s in our best interests to encourage a bond between the two and to be innovative in our defence arrangements with them. As my colleague Benjamin Schreer wrote recently, US alliance partners need to work together to clarify mutual expectations in the Asia–Security order.
Perhaps most difficult of all for the new South Korean President will be how to respond to changing power dynamics in the region. China’s rise and the US pivot to Asia will create a number of new challenges for South Korea, and at the forefront of these challenges is the future of the US–South Korean alliance. There’s every indication that the US–South Korean alliance remains strong; the US is gearing up to provide South Korea with additional Apache attack helicopters and Washington has been upgrading the personnel, weaponry, and equipment of South Korean forces. But, as the US commits more military hardware to the region and the US expects more of South Korea as a key ally in Asia, Park needs to be wary of how these actions will be perceived in Beijing. If China feels that South Korea is complicit in a US-led policy of containment, there might be a point where the US alliance becomes more of a liability than a benefit—especially since the ROK always has one eye on possible reunification on the peninsula and the spoiler role that China could play. The trick is for Park to reap the benefits of the alliance while minimising the fallout in China. Like it or not, South Korea—just like Australia—needs to be wary of the impact of its US alliance on China. If there is to be a smooth power transition in the region, US allies need to play a bigger role in mitigating tensions, and part of that means being more accommodating of China.
Ms Park already has the spotlight for being the first female President of South Korea, but now she needs to open a new chapter in inter-Korean relations, see Japan as a security partner and help facilitate a smooth power shift in Asia.
Hayley Channer is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Πρωθυπουργός της Ελλάδας