South Korea joins neighbours with a renewed nationalist outlook and agenda
“A classy girl who knows how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee” – at least this is how South Korean rapper Psy describes his stereotypical woman from Gangnam, a smart neighbourhood of the capital, Seoul. It is unclear what Park Geun-hye, the new South Korean president (who comes from the celebrated suburb), thinks exactly about the phenomenally successful ‘Gangnam Style’ music video that satirises her home streets.
But for better or worse, that video unquestionably raised her country’s profile across the world. Such an unforeseen but welcome publicity drive came at the perfect time for Ms Park.
Her election last month was a landmark moment for South Korea: the nation had its first female leader. It also meant that a controversial bloodline was back in the hot-seat as Ms Park’s father, the authoritarian Park Chung-hee, ruled the country from 1961-1979. (At least this time Ms Park was voted in democratically – her father got into power via a military coup.)
Ms Park brings a zealous patriotism with her into the presidency – and this is a policy that is in vogue at the moment across the region. South Korea has joined China, Japan and North Korea in having either a new appointed, elected or inherited leader in the last year. They are all bristling with nationalist fervour, a nerve-wracking agenda that mostly involves ‘chicken and egg’ arguments over rocky outcrops in their shared seas.
For Japan and China, the dispute comes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and for Japan and South Korea, their argument relates to the Takeshima/Dokdo rocks. (Territoriality forms the background of their bilateral relationship, stemming from Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of the peninsula.) Last week, the two countries held bilateral ‘quad’ talks. The vice-foreign ministers got together along with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Ms Park. This was the twelfth meeting of its kind since the two nations launched the framework in 2005. The US is particularly anxious that its regional pals Tokyo and Seoul get back together again – both sides let a $57bn currency swap agreement lapse because of the recent flare-up over the disputed islets.
On the part of North Korea, its jostling jingoism is nothing new and is more to do with its behaviour towards the international community as a whole, rather than on any one specific issue.
The election of Ms Park could have brought the space and hope for a new relationship (or, at least, a new outlook) to develop between the North and the South. Kim Jong-un is relatively new to his dictatorial position but he dismissed any faint chance that he would start his rule in a reformist manner by maintaining his father’s close links to the army and maintaining the country’s preference for stage-managed grand-standing over proper reform that will change the lives of his suppressed people.
North Korea successfully launched a long-range rocket in December last year, and while it was timed to mark the anniversary of the death of the despot’s dad, Kim Jong-il, it was also not a coincidence that it happened ten days before South Koreans went to the polls in the presidential vote. It was an inflammatory act and the US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell warned Pyongyang against further provocations in meetings with South Korean officials today (Wednesday 16 January).
Mr Campbell held talks with Ms Park, underscoring the alliance between Washington and Seoul. Both the US and South Korea, along with Japan and the EU, want further sanctions imposed on the North for its rocket launch last month.
But there is more lift-off talk in the South. Seoul will try again to launch its own rocket between 30 January and 8 February. In 2009 and 2010, its attempts to send a satellite into space failed. The 140-ton Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 (KSLV-1) will be ignited at the Naro Space Centre. The rocket was built jointly by Russia and South Korea, and would give Ms Park a triumphant boost of pride ahead of her swearing-in. It would also be a snub to North Korea – showing how to win global plaudits when it comes to launch-pad politics.
Ms Park will not only have to deal with overt North Korean bounciness. Police in Seoul today said that Pyongyang was behind a cyber-attack that disrupted operations at the conservative JoongAng newspaper last year. Hackers attacked the newspaper’s database from an overseas server. Police said that server had the same make-up as one from North Korea through which previous cyber attacks were staged on the South.