Security Challenges for Korea in 2012

      January 02, 2012 12:15

      The Korean Peninsula faces an uncertain 2012 as elections loom in the South and a new leader takes over the North. There will also be a change of power in the U.S., China and Russia, which could have an impact on relations with the big powers.

      ◆ Uncertainty in North Korea

      Kim Jong-un came to power in North Korea after his father suddenly died on Dec. 17 but still has a weak power base. The vacuum left by the death of his father, who had held an iron grip on power for 37 years, will inevitably bring uncertainty to the peninsula and the entire region.

      ◆ Elections in S.Korea

      General and presidential elections are slated for April 11 and Dec. 19. Foreign and security matters are highly likely to loom large during the election campaigns as the parties vie for the upper hand. Candidates are likely to try and exploit growing calls for engagement with Pyongyang after the Lee Myung-bak administration's firm policy produced unsatisfactory results.

      Experts warn the North could launch another missile, conduct a nuclear test or launch a provocation to sow confusion in the South.

      Growing dissatisfaction with established politics is also likely to play a major role in the outcome of the elections as fewer and fewer people see any real hope in the current crop of career politicians and perpetually rotating candidates.

      ◆ Transition in U.S., China, Russia

      Major powers surrounding the Korean Peninsula are likely to have less time for Korean issues as they deal with the transition to new governments. In the U.S., all other issues will fade into the background during its ever-lengthening campaign period in the run-up to presidential elections on Nov. 6. U.S. President Barack Obama aims to win a second term, while ex-President Vladimir Putin is likely to return to power in March despite growing anti-Putin protests.

      In China, power is expected to be handed over from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping in October. Once Xi takes over in October, China could further step up its strategic policies vis-a-vis the North. Xi made his first official foreign visit to North Korea in June 2008 after he became vice president.

      China's policy is nonetheless likely to remain the most consistent in its approach to the North because power will shift to an already chosen successor. Experts say Beijing will continue its gradual strategy to bring the North closer into its orbit by taking advantage of the vulnerable new regime there and the paralysis of U.S. government business.

      Victor Cha, the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the year 2012 could be a good opportunity for the U.S. and China to seek dramatic cooperation over the power shift in the North, but there would be fierce resistance from the U.S. and South Korea if Beijing attempts to more or less take control over North Korea.

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