What Lies Ahead for the Korean Peninsula: Three Presidential Candidates’ Stances on North Korean Policy

From left to right: Saenuri Party candidate Park Geun-hye, Democratic United Party candidate Moon Jae-in, Independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo. Photo credit Korean Broadcasting System (KBS)

With little over a month until the 18th Republic of Korea Presidential election, campaign tempo of the three major candidates— Park Geun-hye, Moon Jae-in, and Ahn Cheol-soo—has been heightened. The three candidates’ platforms differ in various key policy issues, one of which is North Korean policy.

On October 24th, The National Election Commission released the ten key policy promises of each registered presidential candidate on its website. All three major candidates’ “Ten Manifestos” included their policy stance regarding North Korea.

Park Geun-hye of the conservative Saenuri Party points out that neither the engagement policy of past left-wing administrations nor the hard-lined policy of the right-wing Lee Myung-bak administration was able to bring about substantial change within the North Korean society. She also claims that sustainable peace on the Korean peninsula is difficult to achieve due to North Korea’s failure to abide by inter-Korean or international agreements. To remedy the current situation, she calls for a “Korean Peninsula Trust Process” to rebuild broken South-North Korean ties and lay foundations for peaceful unification.  She aims to initiate the Trust Process by resuming South-North dialogue, increasing humanitarian aid, and urging North Korea to comply with existing inter-Korean or international agreements. Since the main focus of the policy is to rebuild trust between two Koreas, she considers any type of financial aid other than humanitarian aid to be extraneous.

Moon Jae-in of the liberal Democratic United Party heavily criticizes the incumbent administration for the regression of inter-Korean relations; he contends there were two factors that caused this regression. First, he states that the 5.24 sanctions in response to the Cheonan ship incident have completely halted trade and still poses as an obstacle to economic cooperation between the two Koreas. He also asserts that because the MB administration’s foreign policy stance is heavily weighted toward the United States, diplomatic relations with other Six-Party Talks worsened. Moon plans to end the current hostile inter-Korean relations and actively pursue economic cooperation with North Korea. He believes economic cooperation is a comprehensive approach that could simultaneously address the issue of denuclearization and peace treaty. Specific projects of economic cooperation will include building infrastructure for North Korean industries, and resuming 48 joint business projects that was agreed upon at the 10.4 declaration. With “balanced diplomacy,” Moon seeks to build a “Northeast Asian Cooperation Growth Belt” that will include the two Koreas, China, Japan, and Russia.

Ahn Cheol-soo, the independent candidate who is known to be a moderate liberal, also criticizes the MB administration for responding inappropriately to conflicts and reaching political stalemate with North Korea. He also argues that the absence of inter-Korean economic cooperation has led North Korea to strengthen its economic ties with China and Russia. His agenda regarding the North Korean policy is to take on South-North cooperation, denuclearization, and establishment of Korean Peninsula peace system, simultaneously. Specific projects include “119 (equivalent of 911 in Korea) Plan to Save Small Businesses,” which is a plan to expand the Kaesong Industrial Region and participate in the Rason Special Economic Zone that was established by China and North Korea. Similar to Moon, Ahn also pledges to develop a cooperative Northeast Asian economy.

Three candidates all seem to agree that the current “Denuclearization/Openness/3,000 initiative” of North Korean policy needs to be replaced with a softer method. Their difference lies in the detail of approaches in rebuilding inter-Korean relations. The essence of Park’s approach is the necessity of North Korea to show authenticity in rebuilding trust between two countries.  The essence of Moon and Ahn policies are some somewhat similar in that they believe inter-Korean economic cooperation will induce denuclearization and stability in the Peninsula. Ahn and Moon both seem to be gearing towards a policy that is similar to the late President Roh Mooh Hyun and President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy. Ahn even explicitly stated that he wants to follow and improve the Sunshine Policy of Kim. Distinguishing point of Ahn’s North Korean policy from that of Moon is that he emphasizes the need for transparency in aiding North Korea, since the main criticism of the Sunshine Policy was that it funded the development of nuclear weapons in North Korea.

Many experts find the North Korean policy promises of the candidates to be vague and impractical. For instance, Ahn’s open criticism towards North Korean human rights violation could clash with his policy towards restoring relations. In the past, direct approach to resolving human rights violation in North Korea was avoided during times when the administration was trying to improve inter-Korean relations. Experts also argue realization of Park’s “Trust Process” is somewhat improbable because of North Korea’s unpredictable nature and its obvious intention not to follow some of existing agreements.

The reason for candidates hesitating to announce detailed North Korean policy plans may be due to the two impending events that will have great impact: the reordering of North Korea policies by the re-elected Obama administration and the likely emergence of a single liberal candidate (Ahn or Moon). Once the results for these two events come out, we will hopefully see more clarity and practicability of North Korean policies through deliberation and open debate.


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