There’s something different about the South Korean government as the National Assembly starts a new session this week (May 30) – it is divided, with a fragmented opposition for the first time since 2002. It will stay that way for the remaining 19 months of Park Geun-hye’s presidency, which, for her, is likely to be the most difficult period of her five-year term. The division leaves South Korea poorly suited to develop new strategies and thinking to cope with changes in North Korea, China and, possibly soon, the U.S. These changes are hurting South Korea, leaving it in need of bold responses. But it is unlikely to get them as Park seeks to preserve what remains of power while her political opponents position for the next presidential election in December 2017.
In North Korea, the Kim Jong Un regime accelerated its weapons program and stiff-armed virtually all engagement, diplomatic and military, with Seoul. As a result, after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in January, the Park government protested by closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the last project initiated in the Sunshine Policy era of 16 years ago and a source of South-to-North wealth transfer. South Korea also helped pass stricter sanctions on North Korea at the United Nations. Park still has plenty of time for a break in diplomacy with the North but, to date, she has been treated far worse by Pyongyang than any other South Korean leader in 20 years. There are no signs from Kim Jong Un that he is interested in any interaction with the South. There are not even signs of not-so-secret talks that characterized interaction between Lee Myung-bak’s government and North Korea. For Park, the result is fewer options to press forward on the country’s main geopolitical issue or to use it as a distraction from South Korea’s difficult economic issues.