South Korea’s new president doesn’t need a hawkish North Korea policy — he needs the only one with a track record of success.
- By S. Nathan ParkS. Nathan Park is an attorney based in Washington, D.C.
As new South Korean President Moon Jae-in takes office, U.S. analysts are fretting he might be soft on North Korea. Moon acted as chief of staff for Roh Moo-hyun, Korea’s last liberal president, who continued the “Sunshine Policy” of his predecessor Kim Dae-jung, who served as president from 1998 to 2003. Named after Aesop’s fable about the sun and the wind competing to convince a traveler to remove his cloak, the Sunshine Policy posited that a warm engagement through economic development, tourism, and cultural exchange would lead to a more open North Korea.
However, after 10 years of liberal administrations in South Korea, the Sunshine Policy was deemed a failure. To its detractors — including a group of U.S. analysts recently published in Foreign Affairs — the Sunshine Policy was a soft-headed policy that pumped money into North Korea based on a fantasy that the regime led by Kim Jong Il (father of the current ruler, Kim Jong Un) could be bribed into change. The policy is accused not only of being ineffectual but also immoral, giving the Kim regime access to money to develop nuclear weapons and hold the world to ransom.
It would be a mistake, however, to write off the Sunshine Policy entirely. Despite its faults, the Sunshine Policy also showed signs of meaningful progress that could have led to greater success had it been allowed to continue.
To begin with, we need to shake off the idea that the Sunshine Policy was soft-hearted bribery, a tribute offered up to keep the North from threatening the South. The foundation of Sunshine Policy always has been the confidence that the South Korean military can punish North Korean provocation and protect South Korean lives.
Indeed, the very first point of the Sunshine Policy’s , as formulated by former President Kim Dae-jung, was that South Korea would not allow North Korea to engage in military provocation. The administrations of both Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, who served from 2003 to 2004, made good on this promise. When North Korea’s navy crossed the Northern Limit Line (the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas over the Yellow Sea) in 1999, and again in 2002, the South Korean navy responded with overwhelming force and killed dozens of North Korean seamen. In contrast, when North Korea sank a South Korean corvette in 2010 and killed 46 sailors, the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration responded with a whimper, merely issuing another round of verbal denunciations.
In addition to punishing North Korea’s bad behavior, the Sunshine Policy produced real benefits. Chief among them was a genuine reduction of the tension and fear of war in the Korean Peninsula. At its peak, the Sunshine Policy had nearly a thousand South Koreans stationed in the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea to supervise the work of more than 54,000 North Koreans. Nearly 2 million South Korean tourists visited Mount Kumgang in North Korea, and an additional 100,000 visited the historical district in the city of Kaesong. There were regular, twice-yearly meetings of families separated between North and South Korea, which reunited (albeit briefly) those tragically torn apart by the Korean War. For the first time since the war, South Korean airlines flew freely over North Korean airspace without fear of attack. Kim Jong Il had in-person meetings with both Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun — still to date, the only two South Korean presidents to actually meet the North Korean leadership.
These regular interactions created a real sense of safety and stability among the South Korean public — something that the national security analysts sitting in Washington, D.C. never properly appreciated. In a survey conducted in 2000, four years into the Sunshine Policy, 77 percent of those surveyed either approved or strongly approved of the Kim Dae-jung administration’s North Korea policy. Among those who approved, 65 percent picked “reduction of military tension” as the top reason why.
The Sunshine Policy changed North Korea as well. Steady interaction with South Koreans exposed the North Korean people to the artifacts of southern wealth, which shook their faith in the communist system. One such artifact was the Choco Pie, a moon pie-like confection that South Korean factories in the Kaesong Industrial Complex distributed to their North Korean workers as a snack. Choco Pies became so popular that, instead of eating them, the North Korean factory workers would save them and later sell them in black markets in every corner of the country.
As North Koreans peeled off wrappers printed in Korean script and bit into the delicious treats, they ingested the irrefutable evidence that the ideological race between the two Koreas was over, and the North had lost. This was no small feat. The flood of biscuits, as well as other South Korean goods (such as pirated DVDs containing South Korean television shows), meaningfully loosened the grip of the regime’s propaganda. The Kim regime was well aware of this; in 2014, North Korean authorities demanded that the South Korean factories in the Kaesong Industrial Complex stop giving workers the treats. The results of showing North Koreans a better alternative were tangible; the number of North Korean defectors began spiking up in 2001 to more than 500 — and then doubled the next year, then reached 2,000 the next year.
Yet the detractors remain adamant. The policy was slammed by Joshua Stanton, Sung-Yoon Lee, and Bruce Klingner in their recent article in Foreign Affairs, as they called for more sanctions against North Korea.
It’s true that the Sunshine Policy, as Stanton et al. argue, failed to produce meaningful change in the North Korean regime’s behavior. But so did more than 10 years of hawkish administrations following Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. For all their tough talk, the administrations of conservatives Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye failed to respond to North Korea provocations as decisively as their liberal predecessors. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un continues the brutal regime his grandfather started.
But, say the hawks, the problem is that they just weren’t hawkish enough: “Bush and Obama talked tough after various nuclear tests, but both failed to back up their words with action,” wrote Stanton et al. Left unstated, however, is the potential risk of stiffer sanctions. The authors write vaguely that “this strategy will take time, determination, and a willingness to accept that U.S. relations with Pyongyang will have to get worse before they can get better. The same is true of U.S. relations with Beijing.” But how much worse? That question matters greatly when the worst-case scenario is a Sino-U.S. clash or a nuclear strike. Are Stanton et al. so confident they can calibrate exactly the right level of sanctions that would cause North Korea to capitulate without sparking apocalypse on the peninsula and beyond?
Also, ironically, the endgame the hawks envisage is actually softer on the Kim regime. As Stanton et al. wrote: “Washington must threaten the one thing that Pyongyang values more than its nuclear weapons: its survival.” Stated differently: As long as Kim Jong Un gives up his nuclear weapons, his totalitarian rule can continue. While the hawks denounce North Korea’s crimes against humanity in one breath, in the next breath they cynically suggest we look away from Kim Jong Un’s murderous dictatorship as long as he gives up his nuclear weapons.
Seen in this light, the merits of the Sunshine Policy become clear. The greatest risk of more sanctions is a nuclear war; the greatest risk of the Sunshine Policy is the continuation of the status quo. As a best possible outcome, the hawks offer no more than the status quo minus North Korean nuclear weapons, leaving untouched the Kim regime’s crimes against humanity. In contrast, the favorable outcome for the Sunshine Policy is the gradual and peaceful reunification of the two Koreas under liberal and free market principles.
The gains of the Sunshine Policy were real: It genuinely made the Korean Peninsula safer and sowed doubt in the minds of ordinary North Koreans about the Kim regime. Though its faults were equally real, that doesn’t mean we should dismiss the entire approach. Any similar policy today would face tougher practical constraints, from South Korea’s own more restrictive domestic laws to U.N. sanctions. But a workable policy should be based on the same principles — that North Koreans, like their South Korean compatriots from a generation ago, deserve the wealth and security they need to fight for a better future.
Photo credit: CHUNG SUNG-JUN/Getty Images