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Hither and Yon

South Korean president walks tightrope on North-South strategy, left-right domestic politics

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, EastAsiaIntel.com
President Park Geun-Hye is pursuing a fight-talk strategy.
On Monday, South Korean gunners staged a live-fire exercise in waters well within hearing range of North Korea’s southwestern coast. Next, North and South Korean negotiators were planning to meet at Panmunjom.
The contrast between military drills and diplomacy suggests the president’s ambivalence in a time of flagging popularity. Back from sessions with global leaders at APEC in Manila and then the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Park talked tough about “iron-clad security” on the fifth anniversary of North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea that killed four South Koreans.
Understandably, Park would like nothing better than for tensions to ease, in the aftermath of the episode in August in which South and North Korean gunners fired across the line between the two Koreas. That near-crisis faded after high-level talks got South Korea to cancel loudspeaker broadcasts into North Korea and the North to express “regret” ― not a real “apology” ― for the mine explosion that blew off the legs of two South Korean soldiers.
To a large degree, Park’s ambivalence reflects domestic considerations. She’s facing a backlash for having ordered her government to produce its own textbooks for high school and middle school history courses in place of texts written by independent scholars. The result has been the most hostile anti-government protests since her election nearly three years ago.
Whatever the merits of arguments over the textbooks, Park provided her foes with a cause that’s sure to intensify in the run-up to the next presidential election in December 2017, nine months after the official state texts are to be adopted.
Although she cannot seek a second term under the 1987 democratic constitution, any candidate from her conservative party will bear the brunt of outrage over the official view of history. Conservatives also face rising protest over labor law reforms. The militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions refuses to join in a trilateral process they believe is weighted toward the government and corporate officials whom labor leaders see as enriching government and big business at the expense of workers.
As her approval ratings fall, Park cannot afford to offend China, seen as influencing if not pressuring North Korea to engage in dialogue. While the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia object to China’s claims to the South China Sea and construction of new facilities in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, Park in her recent travels has had to refrain from supporting the Southeast Asian nations. She cannot go beyond vague calls for “freedom of the seas” for fear of upsetting China, South Korea’s biggest trading partner and North Korea’s only ally.
That’s a difficult line for South Korea to pursue while Park flounders in controversy fueled by her textbook order ― just what her foes need to rally against her. The textbook issue is flaring while the gap between the richest layers of society and the middle class is widening and those at the lower end linger in poverty. Park’s foes, in search of a single dramatic issue, could not have asked for a better gift than her edict on textbooks.
The implications, moreover, go far beyond textbooks. Those battling her textbook policy also are likely to oppose the U.S. alliance while demanding a peace treaty in place of the uneasy truce that ended the Korean War. For any peace treaty to take effect, the North would insist on withdrawal of most if not all the U.S. troops from South Korea and an end to the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
In that spirit, the North’s state media has come out with denunciations of what they happily see as repression of anti-government protests in Seoul. North Korean support for this movement raises questions as to the degree of the North’s influence over extreme elements at the forefront of the demonstrations.
Koreans are caught in a nexus of conflict between right and left, rich and poor in the South, between North and South Korea and between foreign powers competing for power the region. President Park has to navigate amid all these forces while sensitive to the dangers of upsetting the precarious balance at home and abroad.
Meanwhile, nobody notes the irony of North Korea siding with South Korean leftists in outpourings that are totally unheard of in the North.
In fact, considering the rebound effect, North Korean propaganda has to be quite careful in castigating the Park government over the textbook issue. Repetition of that theme might give rise to uncomfortable questions.
What if North Koreans dared to ask who writes North Korea’s textbooks? How much freedom do they have to question the view of history as handed down by the Kim dynasty? The answer obviously is none at all. Such questions must come up, however, in prolonged testing of the strength and resilience of South Korea’s democracy.
Donald Kirk has been watching the evolution of democracy in South Korea for decades. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.
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