Park peps up S. Korean foreign policy

South Korea's President Park Geun Hye is marking her first year in office this month in a manner familiar to elected politicians world-wide: by vowing that, despite the currently feeble evidence, she will deliver on her electoral promise to "sustain economic prosperity and the people's happiness".

But at least in one respect, she has already delivered: she has laid the foundations for a new, active and more coherent Korean foreign policy.

South Korea's extraordinary development, sometimes called the Miracle on the Han River, is now being translated into a serious international footprint. The nation which was so tragically tested for much of the last century has finally joined the ranks of the world's most important players.

Up to a point, Ms Park is a lucky beneficiary of actions taken by previous Korean leaders.

The expansion in South Korea's world-wide diplomatic representation, which included the creation of a network of cultural centres promoting Korean food, art and fashion, has taken place gradually over more than a decade in what must be regarded as one of the best examples of a country flexing its "soft power".

And it was under President Lee Myung Bak, Ms Park's immediate predecessor, that South Korea stunned its chief commercial competitors by winning a massive contract to build nuclear power stations in the Gulf, and by becoming a major supplier of weapons to the Arab world.

That was also seen as a seminal moment in Seoul's rise to the status of a power with a global reach.

Still, the foreign policy of all previous South Korean presidents remained dominated by the traditional, twin-pillared preoccupation with fending off the military threat from North Korea while nurturing the military guarantee provided by the US.

It was a preoccupation which, as time went by, proved to be both too narrow and too divisive.

For it broke the cardinal rule of good diplomacy, by treating key security issues in absolute black-and-white terms: one South Korean president practised a "sunshine policy" towards North Korea while adopting a distant attitude towards Washington, while another reversed the order by seeking to quarantine the Pyongyang regime while embracing the Americans.

Neither approach quite worked as intended, and all recent Korean presidents left office having achieved far less than they wanted in this respect.

Ms Park showed from the start that she is determined to avoid this trap. She coined the slogan "Trustpolitik" to describe her policy towards North Korea.

The term is deliberately spelt in the German language, to invite comparisons with the way West Germany - another previously divided country - dealt with communist East Germany during the Cold War.

Nobody has ever managed to get precise details from Ms Park as to what she means by this concept. But ambiguity is the name of this game.

The President is deliberately trying to lower expectations about what can be achieved with North Korea, while reassuring other governments that continuity and predictability are her guiding principles.

In private, she likes to quote the old Korean proverb that "one-handed applause is impossible" as a way of suggesting that, without some reciprocal movement from North Korea, there is not much she can do.

By all accounts, the approach worked well last year. As North Korea issued blood-curdling threats to "pulverise" Seoul and American cities with nuclear weapons, Ms Park kept her cool, refusing to panic, but also resisting the temptation to match Pyongyang's noise with menaces of her own.

The South Korean administration is guaranteed to adopt the same successful approach next month, when Pyongyang is again expected to start beating the drums of war in response to planned US-South Korea military exercises.

But Ms Park's most interesting foreign policy innovation is her offer to launch a new web of links between regional governments - titled the North-east Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI).

Like her policies towards North Korea, Ms Park's NAPCI concept seeks to imitate Europe's Cold War experience, and particularly the so-called Helsinki Process during the 1970s, when both eastern and western European governments got together in a repeated series of conferences to deal with their continent's security concerns.

And, in a mirror image of her policy towards North Korea, Ms Park maintains that the NAPCI concept should also remain vague. Its attraction is, apparently, precisely the fact that it's neither too ambitious, nor too prescriptive.

Under normal circumstances, an offer to launch a vague dialogue between neighbouring countries with no precise agenda, purpose or deadline would not be the sort of idea meriting much attention.

Nevertheless, the NAPCI concept remains ingenious. For it seeks to fill the biggest void in the region: the absence of any multilateral cooperation structures able to deal with both long-standing disputes and immediate flare-ups.

"The NAPCI should not attempt to create one single umbrella forum or organisation at once", says Professor Kim Young Ho, who runs the Centre for Security Policy at Korea's National Defence University, in explaining the concept to visiting officials and academics from Europe last week.

Instead, says Prof Kim, NAPCI should spur cooperation "in any feasible areas" with regional countries. And, while South Korea is the initiator, Seoul would be happy if countries used the multilateral platform in any way they wished.

The key purpose is to create a cooperation framework, and then use it.

Ms Park's very pronounced tilt towards a friendlier relationship with China, launched during her visit to Beijing last June, is touted by South Korean officials as the first stage in the promotion of this NAPCI concept.

For a variety of historic reasons, Koreans are more comfortable with the rise of China than other regional nations such as the Japanese or the Russians.

A closer relationship with Beijing offers Ms Park the tantalising opportunity of enlisting Chinese help in managing North Korea.

And, as South Korean diplomats like to point out, her friendly overtures to Beijing offer the only realistic prospect of persuading China to engage in a constructive regional security dialogue.

Ms Park's approach is not without its risks. The first is that, in their rush to improve relations with China, the South Koreans may go too far, and obtain too little.

Currently, the US supports Seoul's friendly approach to Beijing. But that's largely because the Americans don't have a better idea of how to handle China.

It is not because they believe that the Koreans have found the magic answer to the Chinese puzzle.

And although Ms Park claims that her policy has already had a positive impact on Chinese behaviour in the region, there is scant evidence for this.

When China recently imposed a new Air Defence Identification Zone, Beijing appeared unperturbed by the fact that its map included a chunk of space that South Korea regards as its own.

But a far bigger obstacle to the realisation of the NAPCI concept is Ms Park's insistence that all the countries in the region "must start with a reappraisal of their history".

This is a direct reference to Seoul's long-standing demand for a Japanese apology for the occupation of the Korean peninsula, and the subsequent horrors of World War II.

Undoubtedly, no durable process of regional reconciliation can succeed without addressing these deep historic wounds. There is no question that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine made matters worse.

It vindicated Ms Park's initial decision not to talk to Japan's leaders. It also embarrassed South Korean officials, who were privately planning a future summit between Ms Park and Mr Abe.

However, cooperating with China in bashing Japan - as Ms Park now seems determined do - is only likely to aggravate the dispute. No purpose was achieved by cornering Japan at the UN Security Council, as South Korean and Chinese envoys did recently.

Nor is much going to be achieved by hounding Japan over historic crimes at every conceivable opportunity.

Last week, for example, the South Koreans managed to raise the question of the so-called "comfort women" - sexual slaves used by Japan's imperial army during the last world war - at a trade fair for Japanese manga magazines held in a provincial city in France.

This was a great publicity stunt, but not so great if Korea is really intent on regional reconciliation. It is a mistake for Ms Park to insist that historic questions should be addressed before regional cooperation.

The experience of Europe suggests that it is regional cooperation which calms down historic grievances, and not the other way around.

But even if the NAPCI initiative gains no traction in the short-term, there is little doubt that, sooner or later, a regional cooperation framework similar to that proposed by South Korea would have to be considered.

So, at least in that respect, Ms Park's achievement is irreversible: she not only articulated the essential elements of regional stability, but also positioned South Korea as a key player.

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