North Korea factor looms large
By Kim Young-jin
As political parties work to spin the results of the National Assembly polls with an eye on the presidential election later this year, they will have an immediate security variable to deal with in North Korea’s plan to launch a long-range rocket.
While it remains to be seen to what extent the major parties will tackle the issue ― it was largely avoided on the campaign trail in favor of domestic matters ― they are likely to handle it carefully to avoid creating a political hot potato.
“This is the most politicized time of the year,” Woo Jung-yeop, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “So the launch is likely to be politicized, and actually politics could overshadow the security issue.”
To be carried out sometime between Thursday and Monday, the North claims the launch is for peaceful purposes while the Lee Myung-bak administration and many other governments believe it aims to advance Pyongyang’s missile program.
Tensions with the North have been high since 2008, when the Lee administration rolled back a decade of engagement and tied provision of aid to denuclearization steps. The situation worsened significantly with Pyongyang’s two deadly attacks in 2010.
Liberals have slammed Lee’s policy as hard line, advocating a return to engagement.
Park Geun-hye, the conservative Saenuri Party’s top presidential hopeful, has advocated a “trust politick” approach that would mix engagement with the maintenance of a tough security stance.
The conservative camp will have the tricky task of balancing the criticism of the launch while at the same time distancing itself from the Lee administration, which is still mired in an illegal spying scandal out of the Prime Minister’s Office.
This holds particularly true if it comes up a loser in the elections, Woo said. In such a case it is likely to criticize the North but stay at arm’s length from Lee’s policy. Either way conservatives may continue criticism of the far-left for alleged pro-North tendencies.
The opposition, win or lose, is likely to continue its assault on Lee ― including his North Korea policy ― and prepare parliamentary investigations into the administration for when they take control of the assembly, observers say.
The political environment could become a dilemma for the administration which has vowed a resolute response in cooperation with the international community. Seoul and Washington officials believe the launch if carried out will be taken up by the U.N. Security Council (UNSC).
The development is certain to stir up great international attention as the U.N. reaction largely hinges on China, Pyongyang’s main ally and a veto-wielding member of the council. Beijing, unlike all other major player in the region, has yet to say publically that the act would violate UNSC resolutions.
Bahng Tae-seop of the Samsung Economic Research Institute said a possible third nuclear test by the North is more likely to become a major issue in the run-up to the presidential polls than the rocket launch.
Intelligence officials here say the North has dug a new tunnel at its northeast Punggye-ri site, where it conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, in apparent preparations for a fresh test, citing satellite imagery. According to analysts a rocket launch and missile test go hand-in-hand in advancing Pyongyang toward developing a long-range missile capable of delivering a nuclear payload.
“If there is a third test, it would prove the North’s intention for the rocket launch,” Bahng said.
Experts on the North say the launch is being carried out mainly in order to consolidate the power of new leader Kim Jong-un, who is taking over power after the death of his father Kim Jong-il. Pyongyang is trying to tie the arrival of a “strong and prosperous” era to the arrival of the new Kim.
Still, the North is infamous for interfering in South Korean electoral politics, carefully timing propaganda and provocations to influence public sentiment. In recent years it has kept up a steady stream of harsh anti-Lee Myung-bak rhetoric and started to criticize Park Geun-hye as well.