SKorea's president-elect faces NKorea uncertainty

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 20, 2012 at 4:18 am •  Published: December 20, 2012
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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Park Geun-hye promises to reach out to North Korea with more humanitarian aid and deeper engagement after she moves into the South Korea's presidential Blue House on Feb. 25. Pyongyang, however, may be in no mood to talk anytime soon.

Park's declarations ahead of Wednesday's election that she will soften a hard-line policy that has seen five years of North Korean nuclear and missile tests and bloodshed between the rivals — culminating with last week's condemned rocket launch — rang true with angry voters.

But still-vague promises of aid and engagement, analysts said, won't likely be enough to push Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions, which Washington and Seoul have demanded for true reconciliation to begin.

To reverse the antipathy North Korea has so far shown her and her conservative predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, Park may also need to go further than either her deeply conservative supporters and political allies or a cautious Obama administration will want.

North Korea may quickly test the sincerity of Park's offer to engage — possibly even before she takes office. Pyongyang has repeatedly called her dialogue offers "tricks."

"North Korea is good at applying pressure during South Korean transitions" after presidential elections, said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University in South Korea. "North Korea will do something to try to test, and tame, Park."

Even the last liberal president, Roh Moo-hyun, a champion of no-strings-attached aid to Pyongyang, faced a North Korean short-range missile launch on the eve of his 2003 inauguration.

Ties between the Koreas plummeted during Lee's five-year term, and many voters blame his demand that engagement be accompanied by nuclear disarmament progress. North Korea put its first satellite into space with last week's rocket launch, which the U.N. and others called a cover for a test of banned ballistic missile technology.

Despite the launch, Park says humanitarian aid, including food, medicine and daily goods meant for infants, the sick and other vulnerable people, will flow — though not anything that can be used by North Korea's military. She says she's open to conditional talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The aid won't be as a much North Korea will want, to be sure, and it won't be as much as her liberal challenger in Wednesday's election would have sent. Park's conditions on aid and talks, or anything Pyongyang may see as less than enthusiastic from the Blue House, could also doom talks before they begin.

Pursuing engagement with North Korea "really would have to be her top priority for her to be a game-changing kind of leader on the issue," said John Delury, an analyst at Seoul's Yonsei University. Park, he said, would likely take a more passive, moderate approach.

"In the inter-Korean context, there's not a big difference between a passive approach and a hostile approach," Delury said, "because if you don't take the initiative with North Korea, they'll take the initiative" in the form of provocations meant to raise their profile.