The Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in a report on Thursday forecast that the incoming Park Geun-hye administration will face the toughest external conditions so far in the 21st century. It said a nuclear-armed North Korea and the rise of China, the North's sole ally, would transform the paradigm of talks aimed at dismantling the North's nuclear weapons program.
The report said that challenges posed by North Korea are "more serious, complicated and varied in characteristics" and added that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will seek to imitate his father in extracting aid from the U.S. using the nuclear card.
U.S. President Barack Obama has no choice but to reexamine his North Korea policy now that the North has long-range missile technology capable of hitting targets on the U.S. mainland. The six-party talks, which started in August of 2003 to get North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons program, have failed to achieve their objective. Even China has been reluctant to commit itself fully, claiming that its own influence over North Korea has its limits. Unless Seoul comes up with a new effective approach, China will continue mainly to tot up its gains and losses on the Korean Peninsula.
The U.S. has been paying more attention to the Iranian nuclear weapons program than to the threat from North Korea. John Kerry, who has been named as the next secretary of state, is a leading dove in the U.S. government who has been supporting dialogue with North Korea. If direct talks with North Korea replace the six-party talks in Washington's approach to Pyongyang and China supports that strategy, there is a strong chance of things returning to the days of the Clinton administration in the 1990s, when Seoul was left out of the loop.
The incoming Shinzo Abe administration of Japan is expected to swerve further to the right and revise the country's constitution so it can to deploy troops abroad and close deal the widening gap with China in terms of firepower. The U.S. is watching nervously, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to depend on Washington to put the brakes on Tokyo's militaristic ambitions because the U.S. needs Japan on its side along with South Korea to keep China in check.
The engagement policies of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations from the late 1990s to 2008 and the containment policy of the Lee Myung-bak administration both failed to persuade the North to embrace reforms. Now South Korea faces a tough road ahead as it builds a new diplomatic framework to deal with North Korea.
North Korea is hell-bent on bolstering its nuclear arsenal, while relations between the U.S. and China face uncertainties as Beijing increasingly flexes its muscle and Japan's swerve to the right heightens the chances of friction with Seoul. Amid such growing uncertainties surrounding the Korean Peninsula, if North Korea conducts a third nuclear test, the Park administration could face a major crisis in external relations.
Park's most urgent task is to put together the strongest diplomatic team she can possibly find. She must win the broad support of the public for her North Korea policies, and the officials she chooses must be made aware of the complex foreign policy situation they face.