SUNSHINE IN KOREA: The South Korean Debate Over Policies Toward North Korea, by Norman D. Levin and Yong Sup Han. Rand Center for Asia Pacific Policy, 2002, 143 pp. (paper).

Although Kim Dae Jung is no longer president of South Korea, his “Sunshine Policy” toward North Korea lives on. His successor, President Roh Moo Hyun, has continued the policy, although he has dubbed his approach the “Policy for Peace and Prosperity.” It’s unclear how the new policy differs in substance from its predecessor, but the name change is significant: It is an attempt to insulate Roh’s approach to the North from the controversy and intense partisanship that surrounded Sunshine. This important new book from two of the Rand Corporation’s foremost Korea scholars explains why distance is important.

Sunshine reflected President Kim’s fervent belief that a new approach to North Korea was essential to unfreezing relations between the two Koreas. The policy took its name from the fable in which the sun bested the wind in a bet: The sun’s heat forced a man to remove a coat that the wind could not blow off. In other words, engagement, not hostility, was the best way to bring about a change in Pyongyang’s behavior.

Sunshine rested on several key assumptions:

* North Korea’s rhetoric and bellicosity mask a survival strategy;

* providing assurances of its survival will produce significant changes in North Korea;

* a serious sustained process of providing North Korea such assurances and inducing such changes will increase North Korean dependence on South Korea and the outside world more broadly;

* increased North Korean dependence will both temper Pyongyang’s behavior and maximize South Korean control over issues dealing with North Korea;

* even without this process, North Korea will not collapse;

* engaging the North and convincing it of South Korea’s sincere intentions is the only viable alternative to high tensions and conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

There were several problems with Sunshine, the most important of which was that it appeared to have little effect on North Korean behavior. Pyongyang continued its belligerence and threatened its neighbors. It excelled at pocketing concessions from the South and gave little, if anything, in return. (The most significant concession, the historic June 2000 North-South summit, now appears to have been paid for, a finding that further tarnished the image of President Kim.) That undermined the credibility of the policy since “the administration’s emphasis on trusting the North in the absence of a widely apparent basis for this trust, and its periodic efforts to palliate the North through policy and personnel changes. . . . creat[ed] an impression of governmental naivete and weakness.”

As an analysis of the shortcomings of the policy, “Sunshine in Korea” doesn’t break new ground. The study’s real significance is the way it highlights strains within South Korean politics that were exacerbated by the Sunshine Policy. This dimension is seldom examined in the West; typically the gap between the South Korean and U.S. positions is thought to represent a gap in thinking between the two countries. In fact, there is a continuum of opinion in both countries. Appreciating the distinction, though, could be critical to the long-term future of the U.S.-ROK alliance.

For example, the Sunshine policy has been heralded as revolutionary, but engagement with the North was not unprecedented. The two Koreas agreed in 1992 on a joint declaration and there were contacts — many of them secret — at various levels. The failure of the Kim Dae Jung administration to acknowledge those roots denied Sunshine a bipartisan foundation that would have given it more resilience when the North started acting up. It would have also helped smooth relations with the Bush administration. A policy that could be said to have begun in the early ’90s would have put the imprimatur of the first Bush administration on it; as it was, Sunshine appeared to have been blessed by the Clinton years, a perception that guaranteed hostility in the White House.

The failure to find a history for Sunshine makes even less sense since Kim only controlled a minority of the legislature. Being proprietary about the notion of engagement — when in fact the novelty was the rebalancing of two objectives, reconciliation and security — ensured that the opposition remained opposed to the policy. Things snowballed from there. As the Rand authors note, “a certain hardheadedness closed the policymaking process to all but the closest of the president’s aides and blinded the administration to the dangers of mounting domestic opposition.”

Opposition was compounded when the administration took on the media. The row was ostensibly over taxes, but most of the public viewed it as government bashing of a hostile press. Needless to say, the resulting furor only made both sides dig in their heels even deeper, thus compounding the ill will.

The result, according to the Rand authors, is that “debate over Sunshine has reopened deeper, long-standing fissures within South Korean society.”

What is ironic is that there is probably more consensus than disagreement when it comes to South Korean views of how to deal with the North. “Few South Koreans are ready to trade in engagement for confrontation. Even fewer want war. . . . While critics of the Sunshine Policy want to see significant changes in South Korea’s approach toward the North, most also want continued progress toward tension reduction and peaceful coexistence.”

The real debate in South Korea is over the way engagement is practiced, not the merits of engagement itself. Most South Koreans have lost patience with North Korea; they also agree that bad behavior should not be rewarded. The challenge is moving beyond that point.

Any South Korean policy toward the North must balance the competing needs of reconciliation and security. The Sunshine Policy probably erred on the side of the former. Initial fears that Roh would continue this line have been dispelled. The new administration has proven ready to take a harder line that seems more compatible with the views of a majority of South Koreans and the administration in Washington.

Creating a broader base for engagement with the North should also convince Pyongyang that it cannot divide Koreans against themselves or play Seoul against Washington. That has been the most successful tool in the North’s diplomatic arsenal. Depriving Pyongyang of that opportunity may prove to be the most effective way of promoting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and throughout Northeast Asia.

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