Last week’s dramatic announcement of an inter-Korean summit provides an opportunity to test the momentum created by North Korea’s pragmatic attempt to develop new relationships with the outside world. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine” policy has supported Pyongyang’s own apparent efforts to reach out to the international community. It is only fitting that North Korea reciprocate by acknowledging the South as a legitimate counterpart and the likely main partner in achieving economic rehabilitation.
Some critics have suggested that attempts to influence the outcome of South Korea’s National Assembly elections drove the timing of the summit announcement, but now the elections are over and the opportunity to progress toward inter-Korean reconciliation remains to be grasped. Most notably, all the former South Korean presidents endorsed the summit announcement even during the heat of a domestic election campaign, and the divided outcome of the election itself underscores the need for leadership that broadly represents the desires of the South Korean people: namely, pursuit of engagement with reciprocity.
The South Korean election result is also a subtle reminder that the sunshine policy in its current form may not last forever. Given the uncertain outcomes of Japanese and U.S. elections to be held later this year, the atmosphere for an agreement that can “lock in” important gains for North Korea may never be better than now.
The next rounds of preliminary negotiations over protocol and agenda setting will not be easy; the record shows that there have been more breakdowns than breakthroughs in inter-Korean dialogue. In addition, past breakthroughs have been accompanied by external shocks such as the announcement in 1971 that U.S. President Richard Nixon would visit Beijing and the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, a pattern that raises questions about precisely what conditions have triggered the current opening. The task of paying appropriate respect to his hosts in Pyongyang while also maintaining his dignity as South Korea’s leader will require Kim Dae Jung to exercise political wisdom at every turn.
Compounding the preliminary difficulties is the fact that future negotiations will be conducted under public scrutiny, and excessive media speculation over the agenda has already made the task of working-level negotiators more difficult. Excessive South Korean media speculation gives the upper hand to the North Korean side, which does not have to worry about media leaks compromising their own negotiating position. In fact, North Korean media’s accusations of DMZ violations by the South may have already provided a pretext for tactical demands or even possible withdrawal from negotiations.
However, there are powerful factors in favor of expanded inter-Korean exchange and cooperation that would best be stimulated by the symbolism accompanying an historic direct meeting between top Korean leaders.
First, if the South Korean government is to expand its assistance to North Korea’s economic recovery, it is appropriate for Kim Jong Il to acknowledge the extensive economic support of the South Korean people in his meeting with Kim Dae Jung.
Second, the next stage of North Korea’s economic rehabilitation must go beyond food aid to include economic development, a process that will require much greater outside access to the North. The KEDO project to build light-water reactors there and the Hyundai tourism project at Mount Kumgang are two examples of the need for South Korean technical experts.
Third, North Korea’s own efforts to expand relations with the international community will be stimulated by progress in inter-Korean relations. Kim Dae Jung’s voice has been valuable in shaping a more favorable international environment for North Korea. He called for the United States to lift economic sanctions two years ago and played a major role in convincing former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry to recommend that the U.S. reach out to North Korea diplomatically (although there has been little significant progress so far). In future, the South Korean president may be the most effective advocate in gaining international support for North Korea’s economic recovery.
Perhaps the most difficult challenge Kim Dae Jung faces is the task of converting the extraordinary symbolism accompanying a summit meeting into substantive, mutually beneficial progress — through enhanced security of South Korea in exchange for the economic stabilization of the North. The outstanding question is whether, having taken a few tentative steps outside in the spring of a new millennium, North Korea is ready to bask in greater sunshine and the warm “south wind” of Kim Dae Jung’s visit. An even more complex question is whether, with wind from the South, there will be political will to persist in the face of possible typhoons that may accompany warmer weather.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.