North Korea’s third nuclear test is forcing incoming South Korean President Park Geun Hye to reconsider pledges of engagement with a hostile neighbor that is improving its atomic weapons technology.
The totalitarian regime on Feb. 12 tested “a smaller and light” nuclear device, the official Korean Central News Agency said, two months after firing a long-range rocket. The bomb had a yield of 6 to 7 kilotons, South Korea’s Defense Ministry estimated, bigger than the previous two detonations.
Park’s offers to expand economic cooperation with North Korea and hold a summit with its leader Kim Jong Un have gone unanswered ahead of her Feb. 25 inauguration. Kim’s emphasis on reinforcing a military-first policy threatens to squash an opportunity to expand South Korean participation in a joint industrial zone that aids his impoverished economy.
“Engaging in dialogue with North Korea is important but national security is more important,” said Yoo Ho Yeol, professor of North Korean studies at Korea University in Seoul. “Park must restructure her security agenda to implement stronger punitive measures against the North.”
The incoming administration’s stance is “based on strong deterrence, not one of appeasement,” Park said yesterday in a meeting with her advisers, according to an e-mailed statement. “There will be some changes to the policy but the general framework won’t be altered, as it was formed with the expectation that North Korea would act this way.”
More than half of South Koreans support stronger sanctions against North Korea, according to a Feb. 12 survey by Seoul- based pollster Realmeter. Fifty-five percent of 500 respondents backed responding to the atomic test with increased punitive measures, while 37.6 percent preferred dialogue. The survey had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
Park condemned the test, saying her government wouldn’t allow a nuclear-armed North Korea. The North previously detonated atomic devices in 2006 and 2009.
During last year’s successful campaign, Park advocated providing humanitarian aid to North Korea “independent of political developments,” distancing herself from outgoing President Lee Myung Bak’s policy of disengagement. She pledged to help the North join global financial and trade groups, and to promote foreign investment into the totalitarian state.
Park “has been talking about building trust and this really throws cold water on that from the outset,” said Lee Jung Hoon, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul.
South Korea suspended nearly all trade with North Korea in May 2010, in response to the sinking of a naval ship that killed 46 sailors. The only remaining exchange is the joint industrial complex in the North Korean border city of Gaeseong.
More than 120 South Korean companies including watchmaker Romanson Co. and underwear manufacturer Good People Co. employ about 50,000 North Korean workers at the complex. Production rose 17 percent in 2011, accounting for 99 percent of bilateral trade, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry.
“There is a major debate coming up when the new government comes to develop policy,” said Hahm Chai Bong, president of Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “While there will be people who continue to say that economic contact such as in Gaeseong need to be preserved the nuclear test definitely makes it more challenging for them to make that case.”
Park’s inauguration is one of several political transitions taking place in Asia, where its two biggest economies -- Japan and China -- are embroiled in a territorial dispute. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December pledging to boost defense spending and Xi Jinping is set to become president of China next month.
China, North Korea’s biggest benefactor, warned Kim against carrying out the test and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi summoned the North Korean ambassador to protest. China backed United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea following the December rocket launch, and Kim’s decision to go through with the nuclear test highlights its limited influence.
“It’s decision time for Xi Jinping and the new leadership in China,” Yonsei University’s Lee said. “Do you live with a nuclear North Korea, basically accept it, or adopt policies to really influence North Korea so that it will roll back its nuclear weapons program?”
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