South Korea's President-elect Park Geun-hye mentioned Pyongyang's recent firing of a long-range rocket as a case that "symbolically showed how grave our security reality is" in her address to the nation a day after her win in the December 19 presidential vote.
The following day, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for developing bigger rockets at a banquet he hosted for scientists, technicians and other officials involved in the December 12 launch, according to the North's state media.
Seoul's Defence Ministry said Sunday Pyongyang's latest liftoff amounted to the test of a ballistic missile capable of carrying a half-ton payload over 10,000 kilometres.
The conclusion, based on the analysis of an oxidiser container recovered from the rocket's first-stage splashdown site, reaffirmed that the launch was a disguised test for banned ballistic missile technology, not a scientific mission aimed at putting a satellite into orbit, as claimed by the North. The findings will further strengthen the case for South Korea and its allies including the US to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea for violating UN Security Council resolutions that prevent it from proceeding with nuclear and missile development programmes.
In the aftermath of Pyongyang's rocket launch, Park may have difficulty finding momentum for taking a new initiative toward the communist regime. Her post-election speech appeared to indicate she would be cautious for the time being in pushing for her policy of conditional engagement with the North.
Park has said she is open to dialogue with Pyongyang to start the process of building mutual trust in a departure from outgoing President Lee Myung-bak's hard-line stance against the isolated regime. But she has also called on North Korea to show sincerity toward easing tension on the peninsula, especially progress in nuclear dismantlement, to enable full-fledged cooperation between the two Koreas.
Park's approach apparently results from a lesson that neither Lee's strict adherence to reciprocity and his two liberal predecessors' policy of unconditional engagement was successful in changing the attitudes of the North. But it may also prove too naive to expect that simply resuming talks with Pyongyang with no preconditions would lead to a thaw in inter-Korean ties frozen for the past years.
What may be needed in handling North Korea is a sophisticated mixture of carrots and sticks. The North should be made to go through some consequences for its provocative acts such as its latest rocket launch. Simultaneously, a dialogue channel must be kept open as a tool for modifying its behaviour by suggesting security assurances and other benefits it could gain from changing its course.
If necessary, Park may have to take a bolder initiative than a measured engagement. As some observers note, her credentials as a conservative leader may allow her to pursue a more flexible approach than anticipated without prompting suspicions from her rightwing supporters.
In the process of building inter-Korean confidence, she needs to maintain close coordination with US President Barack Obama, who is entering his second term, and draw support from new Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Washington is expected to continue being responsive to Seoul's approach toward Pyongyang. But Obama's nomination of Sen. John Kerry as his new secretary of state may bring in new dynamics in dealing with North Korea, as the seasoned senator is known for having a deep understanding of Korean issues and supporting bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang. It would be another test of Park's diplomatic capability to enlist effective cooperation from Xi in keeping North Korea in check.
Park and her aides are required to have been armed with a long-term roadmap and detailed tactics for securing peace and stability on the peninsula by the time she is inaugurated as the country's first female president in February.
In the transition period and probably during the first months of Park's presidency, South Korea needs to watch out for North Korea's possible provocations aimed at testing or taming the new administration in Seoul.
Pyongyang, which made clear its preference for Park's liberal rival, Moon Jae-in of the opposition Democratic United Party, in the election campaign, appears to be pondering how to react to the conservative leader.
North Korea may take some time to gauge the sincerity of Park's willingness to engage it. There is still the possibility of Pyongyang taking an aggressive stance even before Park's inauguration to push her to make a choice between confrontation and dialogue with it. North Korea has a long record of applying pressure during transitions in South Korea, with experts noting it has made provocative acts with few exceptions within months of previous presidential polls in the South.
© The Korea Herald. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with Asia News Network.