South Korea's Sunshine policy strikes back

Posted in Koreas | 07-May-08 | Author: Sunny Lee

South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak.

BEIJING - South Korea's Sunshine policy towards the North has been in a virtual coma for the two months since the inauguration of conservative Lee Myung-bak as president of the South. Lee wants to act tough and teach Pyongyang a lesson on a Confucian golden rule: reciprocity.

Lee believes Pyongyang failed to learn from the carrots Seoul patiently dangled during over the past 10 years. South Korea, in Lee's mind, held onto a naive belief that such goodwill gestures would eventually be reciprocated by Pyongyang. Now, it's time for a reality check, hardliners are clamoring, and many are describing the time spent on the Sunshine policy as the "lost 10 years".

As it happens, reciprocity is also a golden rule in business. And it runs deep in former business tycoon Lee Myung-bak's blood. Naturally, Lee was quick to point out that the deal Seoul had engaged in with Pyongyang, offering food and fertilizer with little concession from the North, had gone unrewarded. Meanwhile, right-leaning politicians and the public who support Lee's tough stance on North Korea, are chanting "No more Sunshine policy!"

Even under the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations when Seoul carried out the Sunshine policy, there had been constant opposition to it. One of the loudest uproars against the engagement policy came in 2006 when North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test. The test dealt a fatal blow to all the public relations efforts the Sunshine policy team had put in. Many people thought: after all these years of aid to the North, this is what we get. The Sunshine policy was slammed and Seoul's top policymaker on North Korea, Lee Jong-seok, stepped down.

At that time, Yoo Ho-yeol of Korea University harshly criticized the Roh Moo-hyun government. According to Yoo, "The Sunshine policy proved to be helpless in preventing North Korea from developing nuclear weapons ... Those supporting the Sunshine policy believed that if we embraced North Korea warmly first, North Korea would transform itself through reform and opening-up, improve its relationship with the South and that would eventually eliminate the cloud of war over the Korean Peninsula." He concluded: "The policy may have started with a good intention, but the reality now dictates that we shouldn't anchor to it any more."

Naturally, when Lee took the helm of the country he ushered in a sea-change and the Sunshine policy appeared to be destined for the shredder. After all, Lee won the presidential election on the platform that he would reverse the Sunshine policy and be tough on North Korea, ending the era of unconditional concessions to the North.

But last week, the Sunshine crusade struck back with mighty force - both at home and abroad. "I am confident that Lee Myung-bak will eventually return to the Sunshine policy," said Chung Se-hyun, former unification minister under Kim Dae-jung and also under Roh Moo-hyun until 2004, at a breakfast meeting in Seoul. The ex-minister also reminded the audience that halfway across the world, Kim Dae-jung was delivering a similar message at Harvard about the same time.

Meanwhile, Cheong Seong-chang, head of the North Korea department at the Sejong Institute, a top think-tank that often advises the government, argued before a strategy forum that "inter-Korean relations have been rapidly deteriorating, mainly because the Lee Myung-bak government persisted on differentiating its North Korean policies from those of the former Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments, ignoring the agreements previously made by the North-South summit and pursued a hardline policy."

In the same week, a Sunshine team released statistics that highlight the achievements of the policy. For example, since the launch of the Sunshine policy, they say, as many as 1.72 million South Koreans have visited the scenic Mount Kumgang, or Diamond Mountain, in North Korea. Currently, there are 69 South Korean companies in the North's Kaesong Industrial Park, where South Korean companies employ 30,000 North Koreans.

On any given day, 300 to 400 South Korean vehicles cross the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to North Korea, with about 1,000 people crossing the border each day. Annually, some 100,000 Koreans living across the DMZ visit each other (the figure doesn't include those visiting Mount Kumgang). At the end of last year, total inter-Korean trade reached $1.78 billion, accounting for 40% of North Korea's total outbound trade.

Citing all these figures as evidence of North Korea's growing signs of openness, as well as its deepening ties with the South, ex-minister Chung said "instead of criticizing the Sunshine policy as being non-reciprocal or as being taken advantage of by North Korea, it's wiser to make the best use of North Korea's growing reliance on South Korea".

Yet skeptics maintain there has been no real reduction of military threat under the Sunshine policy. For example, in 2002, there was a fatal naval clash between the Koreas in the West Sea. That bloody confrontation, which the South said was initiated by the North, resulted in numerous casualties on both sides, bringing high military tension to the Korean Peninsula. It also left a deep emotional chasm in the South between the pro- and anti-engagement camps. Yet the Seoul government wanted to continue with its engagement posture with North Korea. A wife of a fallen South Korean solider, who was so distraught by "the country that neglects the heroes who lost their lives for the country", left the country for the US, only to return recently after hardline Lee became the president.

The ex-minister Chung, however, said such criticism, mainly assessing the impact of the Sunshine policy in terms of political and military aspects, is fundamentally wrong about the sequence of how things are resolved. Citing the case of Germany, he said: "The civilian exchange always comes first and then other changes such as political and military follow. If you look at it from the angle of the civilian exchange front, there certainly has been progress."

Andrei Lankov, a Russia-born expert on North Korea, nods to the impact of civilian exchange between the Koreas. "North Korea is a regime that can be toppled peacefully on a long-term basis by South Koreans working together with North Koreans side by side. Projects like Kaesong are good. We need more. The more the better," Lankov told Asia Times Online at his office in Seoul, adding, "If I were the Dear Leader, I would ... " He didn't finish the sentence. Instead, he made the gesture of beheading, trying to make a point of how "dangerous" such projects are to North Korea.

Lankov is an unusual right-wing scholar in that he doesn't approve of the North Korean regime but still sees the usefulness of the Sunshine policy (up to 80% successful, according to Lankov) in terms of how it can "destroy" the North Korean regime from within, by enabling more North Koreans to be in contact with South Koreans and foreigners, thereby exposing them to the absurdity of the regime in which they live.

Supporters of the Sunshine policy also like to point out the capitalistic influence permeating North Korea. They maintain that although North Korea outwardly claims to be a socialist country, in reality it has already begun to change into a market economy. Chung cited an ever-growing wealth gap in North Korea as an example and argued that "the very fact that the North Korean government cannot control [the widening wealth gap] testifies that its socialism is not working. What is actually working is a growingly market-based capitalism."

However, not everyone is impressed by such change in North Korea. The former North Korean Workers' Party secretary Hwang Jang-yup, the highest-ranking North Korean official ever to defect to the South, downplays the significance of the introduction of a market economy into North Korea, saying, "Hitler's Germany also had based itself on a market economy." Hwang also criticized that Seoul's economic aid to Pyongyang had actually prevented the collapse of the North regime that had been already undergoing internal disintegration. The Sunshine team retorts that such criticism is short-sighted because an economically desperate North Korea might easily resort to military provocation, greatly destabilizing the Korean Peninsula.

Supporters of the Sunshine policy see the year 2002 as North Korea's first year of launching an opening-up policy. In that year, it opened a few cities to South Koreans, including Sinuiju in September, Mount Kumgang in October and Kaesong in November. In fact, the supporters of the Sunshine policy say North Korea has a "real" intention to change but it is the US that isn't giving the North a chance.

Importantly, they also feel wrongly accused for North Korea's nuclear test in 2006, which, as they see it, Pyongyang conducted to raise its bargaining chip in negotiating with Washington, not because of the Sunshine policy. On this aspect, the architect of the Sunshine policy, Kim Dae-jung, perhaps revealed his most personal and unreserved view when he delivered a speech at a university in his political home turf of southern Cholla province:

I hear a strange theory that North Korea's nuclear experiment means the failure of the Sunshine policy. People say we should stop our engagement policy with North Korea, stop tours to Mount Kumgang and Kaesong. Did North Korea ever say it developed the nuclear programs because of the Sunshine policy?

Kim exploded in a lecture at Chonnam National University, adding:

North Korea is developing nuclear programs because the US is refusing to enter into a dialogue with it and impose economic sanctions without giving it an exit to find a way to live otherwise. Why are people pestering the Sunshine policy? Don't even think that the Sunshine policy is your easiest punching bag on which you can place any blame [for whatever goes wrong in North Korea].

Advocates of the Sunshine policy also point out the fact that Kim Yong-sun, the late secretary of the North's ruling Workers' Party, once proposed to the US to establish diplomatic relations, even volunteering to say that if the US agreed, Pyongyang would even tolerate the continued presence of US troops in a unified Korean Peninsula. Washington rejected the offer.

The ex-minister Chung said, "In a sense, I frankly feel that it's the US that engineers a new problem in the North Korean issue that had once almost reached a breakthrough."

At Harvard, Kim Dae-jung criticized the George W Bush administration's hardline policy, saying it "reversed the age of warm sunshine back to the age of cold wind". As a consequence, he said, for the past six years, North Korea broke away from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, ousted International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, fired long-range missiles, while the tension ultimately climaxed with the October 2006 nuclear experiment. "Since then, the nuclear issue has not seen its solution," Kim said in the speech.

The new conservative government in South Korea has repeatedly said it will focus on improving the nation's economy. The North-South Korea relationship is a big factor in business sentiment and the assessment of national credit ratings. In this sense, a stable Korean Peninsula is good for attracting investment and business opportunities. And the Sunshine policy is ultimately good for the nation's economy, supporters argue. "But so far the Seoul government has been drifting in a direction that is not helpful for the two Koreas' relationship and that will eventually also hurt its economy," Chung said.

Critics of Lee Myung-bak's approach to North Korea also contend his tough "pragmatic" policy on Pyongyang is actually not pragmatic since it is too much molded by business philosophy. They argue that expecting reciprocity in dealing with North Korea is the wrong approach because the ultimate goal is unification, not economic gain. Gong Tieying, a Chinese analyst on Korean affairs, points out that doing politics is different from doing business. "Politics needs a long-term vision. If a political leader still conducts himself mainly using the logic of a businessman, then trouble is bound to occur."

Still, conservatives in South Korea don't see any sunlight in the Sunshine policy. Yang Un-chul, a researcher with the Sejong Institute who supports Lee's hard-nosed approach on North Korea, says: "What is clear is that the past policy of engaging North Korea not only failed in preventing Pyongyang from going nuclear but it also didn't improve the North Korean economy in real terms. If we take a confident and consistent attitude and carry out policy based on reciprocity, North Korea's attitude will change eventually."

Interestingly, the Sunshine team believes that Lee's idea that a tough policy on North Korea will actually work is naive at best. After all, they say, the Sunshine policy started because a prior confrontational policy against North Korea for 40 years didn't work.

Former unification minister Chung says the Lee Myung-bak administration seems to need some "study time" to figure it out themselves before arriving at the same conclusion, reasoning that Lee will eventually come to appreciate the Sunshine policy. Kim Dae-jung is even more confident about what the Sunshine policy can do. In the second half of his speech at Harvard, he argued that the US should adopt a Sunshine policy in its dealings with China to further integrate it into the international community.

With both camps confident about their own political philosophy of dealing with North Korea, the ball is now in Lee Myung-bak's court to prove it. Lee has five years for the test. And the clock is already ticking.

Sunny Lee is a writer. A native of South Korea, Lee is a graduate of Harvard University and Beijing Foreign Studies University. He can be reached at boston.sunny@gmail.com

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