North Korea nuclear deal raises concerns for Seoul

By agreeing to US demands to suspend its nuclear program, is North Korea trying to manipulate elections to oust South Korea's current conservative leadership? 

Ahn Young-joon/AP
A South Korean Christian student shouts slogans during a rally denouncing North Korea's nuclear program to mark the March First Independence Movement Day in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, March 1.

As South Korea measures its response to the US-North Korea nuclear agreement, its conservative leaders face the challenge of revising their tough policy toward the North in the run-up to crucial elections this year.

The sense here is that North Korea’s hostility toward South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak and the North's desire to see the opposition take control of the government together amount to one reason North Korea agreed to the deal. North Korea promised to place a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, suspend activities at its nuclear complex, and admit inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency for the first time in three years.

“North Korea is trying to manipulate elections,” says Choi Jin-wook, long-time senior analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification. Foes of the current government are hoping to drive the ruling party from its majority in the National Assembly elections next month and go on to win the presidential election in December. “North Korea will be in a much better position if the opposition wins.”

President Lee is not expected to oppose the agreement, but he was notably silent on the topic today.

South Korea President’s respite from comment

Instead, while headlines around the world spread the news of the agreement, Mr. Lee made an emotional appeal for Japan to resolve “the issue of military comfort women” – a reference to thousands of women from Asian countries, mostly Korea, forced to serve as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers in World War II. Today is a national holiday marking the anniversary of the uprising of March 1, 1919, against Japanese colonial rule.

Although only 63 former Korean comfort women are still alive, the issue endures as a symbol of harsh oppression. Japan has refused to provide compensation, saying such demands were covered when Japan and Korea opened diplomatic relations in 1965, 20 years after the Japanese surrender and the end of colonial rule.

The holiday no doubt gave Mr. Lee a respite from having to comment on the deal, but he will have to confront it head-on if a conservative candidate is to have a chance of succeeding him in December.

Under Korea’s “democracy constitution,” adopted in June 1987 at the height of huge protests against rightist dictatorial rule, Lee cannot run for a second five-year term.

Criticism of North

The likely conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye, daughter of the long-ruling dictator Park Chung-hee, has come out for a strong policy against North Korea. In one speech this week, she said it “would be very difficult to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons” since North Korea has hailed “possession of a nuclear arsenal” as “the greatest achievement” of the late Kim Jong-il.

The agreement, in fact, says nothing about North Korea actually giving up its nuclear weapons or, for that matter, stopping production of short- and medium-range missiles, many of which are produced for export. Much depends on the policy set forth by Kim Jong-il’s son and heir, North Korea’s untested “supreme leader,” Kim Jong-un.

“The agreement shows Kim Jong-un is in control of the military,” says Ha Tae-keung, president of Open Radio for North Korea, which broadcasts into North Korea by short wave from here for two hours daily. “He’s quite sure of himself.”

The leader of the opposition Democratic United Party, Han Myeong-sook, who served as Korea’s first female prime minister during the presidency of Lee’s left-leaning predecessor, the late Roh Moo-hyun, blasted the government for “adhering to a hard-line stance against the North." That policy “has failed completely,” she said. “Rather than resolving the nuclear issue, it has aggravated the situation.”

Amid sagging popularity ratings, Lee is expected to emphasize the need for six-party talks on the North’s nuclear weapons program and also to call for bilateral talks with North Korea. The US has demanded North Korea hold talks with the South – though not as a condition for extending 240,000 tons of food to the North's severely underfed children at a rate of 20,000 tons a month over the next year.

Lee, after his inauguration four years ago, halted shipments of several hundred thousand tons a year of rice and fertilizer that South Korea was shipping to the North under the Sunshine policy of reconciliation initiated by the late Kim Dae-jung, the president from 1998 to 2003. Analysts believe he may have to pull back from that position in the interests of dialogue that many Koreans want to resume.

“One clear thing is we provide food aid,” says Paik Haksoon, director of North Korean studies at the Sejong Institute think tank. “Definitely there will be more and more pressure to do that if six-party talks are to resume.”

Otherwise, he says, the South will be out of the process.

“South Korea is not a player,” says Mr. Paik. “They are just watching. The government has been sidelined.

If that goes on, he says, "there will be big attacks from the opposition.” He adds, “There will be a serious impact” – including, possibly, the end of conservative rule.

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