Next week, on Dec. 18, South Koreans will elect their 15th president. The winner will become only the second civilian to hold the post after decades of authoritarian rule by former generals.
Whichever candidate wins the election, a peaceful transition of power will symbolize the fruition of the nation's long, turbulent struggle for democracy. Yet, an impressive show of democratic process aside, South Korea (the Republic of Korea, or ROK) still has a long way to go before reconciling with its archenemy - North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) - and restoring permanent peace on the Korean peninsula.
Still a hot spot
As a lingering vestige of the cold war, the peninsula remains a volatile and uncertain "hot spot" of the world. This is partly attributable to the legacy of the outgoing government of President Kim Young Sam which, over the last five years, has failed to help improve relations between the two Koreas. Also, despite two promising North-South Korean agreements in late 1991 and 1992, as well as the US-North Korean Nuclear Agreed Framework three years ago, relations between the North and South have been at an impasse.
The upcoming presidential inauguration in South Korea offers an opportunity for the ROK to begin a genuine peace process with the DPRK and to create a stable security environment in Northeast Asia.
Officials from the two Koreas, the US, and China have been engaged in preliminary four-party peace talks to reduce military tension and formulate a permanent peace treaty for the peninsula.
The plenary talks will finally begin today in Geneva, after being suspended when North Korea made obstinate demands. Those included withdrawal of all US troops from South Korea, lifting of US economic sanctions, and guaranteed levels of food aid for the impoverished nation.
All sides have returned to the negotiating table, but it's difficult to predict whether the talks will lead to a breakthrough toward genuine peace.
Under close scrutiny, it's arguable that the current government in Seoul is just as accountable as Pyongyang for continuing the stalemate in the peace process. It remains steadfastly opposed to making significant concessions to the North and is reluctant to consider initiatives that could change the course of North-South relations. The present government in Seoul continues to sound the war alarm by manipulating incursions by the North and by discouraging inter-Korean trade and travel.
The North Koreans aren't naive. They recognize fully the limitations of dealing with a South Korean government that is unwilling and adversarial. Their inflexible demands in the peace talks have been a deliberate attempt to stonewall the process until a supposedly more progressive government in South Korea takes power.
The fate of the peace process on the Korean peninsula will depend largely on the attitude of the new South Korean government. Despite Pyongyang's tendency to put up a defiant front, the nation is moving toward gradual openness. It has created a free-trade zone, sought membership in the Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund, frozen its nuclear program, and entered into the four-party peace talks.
It's in the best interest of all parties involved in the peace process for the next ROK government to take a proactive approach as it engages the North. A good start would be to stop the demonization of North Korea. And when approaching the isolated North, South Korea should substitute calm rationale for its emotional approach.
The new government will face several obstacles in implementing the initiatives necessary to achieve genuine peace. Disarray in South Korean politics, caused by fractured political alliances, doesn't portend well for the country's future foreign policy.
When loyalty matters most
This is compounded by a political system in which regional loyalty matters more than policy. Polls show Kim Dae Jung and Lee Hoi Chang running neck and neck, each with about 30 percent popular support. Regardless of who wins, the new president will lack a sufficient mandate to implement bold foreign policy toward North Korea.
Yet, time is critical. Regional players are shaping the emergency security order that will affect the nature of any peace accord between the two Koreas. Russia, China, Japan, and the US have recently concluded major summits among themselves, while North and South Korea remain locked in a standoff. South Korea must take the initiative to lead the peace process, not follow it.
* Glenn Baek is a research analyst in the Political-Military Studies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.