SEOUL — Government transitions are good times for political analysts. Before the new team moves into office, these experts share their knowledge, make evaluations and sometimes even predictions. These days the newspapers are full explanations of what the new U.S. leadership might do and should not do. Others go further and offer unsolicited suggestions as to what should be done.
Regarding Northeast Asia, analysts concur in two points. First, they expect the new U.S. president to strengthen the alliance with Japan in an effort to cope with a rising China. Second, they assume that George W. Bush will take a tougher, more hardline approach toward the communist regime in North Korea.
U.S. policy continues to be crucial to political developments in this part of the world. But, it has become merely one factor out of many. Gone are the times — quite fortunately — when Americans blew their trumpet and the rest of the world danced to their tune. The shift in political weight is especially apparent in the Korean context. There are several indications that the center of the political and diplomatic decision-making process regarding strategy toward North Korea has moved from Washington to Seoul in recent years.
This is a major achievement of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. Seoul and Washington have harmonized their policies and are moving along in step. Looking back, this has not always been the case.
Now, however, there is the danger that this harmony, based on a strategic consensus, may be shattered. This could happen — and I hurry to add that this is a hypothetical case — should analysts who predict that Bush will pursue a more combative approach aimed at undermining Seoul’s “sunshine policy” prove right.
Ever since Kim moved into the Blue House, the South Korean government has a very clear concept and strategy. This was not always the case. When I first came to Korea four years ago, diplomats and journalists were joking about the continuous changes in the North Korea policy of then-President Kim Young Sam: Some even said he adjusted his positions as frequently as others change their underwear. In contrast, Kim Dae Jung laid out his strategy regarding North Korea for everyone to hear at the beginning of his presidency, and has pursued it with remarkable success ever since.
It would be a mistake to portray his sunshine policy, as this strategy has come to be known, as a policy of appeasement. The government pursues a carrot policy firmly based on a stick, explained a leading South Korean diplomat in a recent lecture. The president hardly misses a chance to repeat the three principles guiding his policies: He will never tolerate armed provocation, he will actively pursue reconciliation and cooperation with the North, and he has no intention to undermine or absorb North Korea.
It is this last of the three principles the critics of the sunshine policy — both here and abroad — have the most problems with. This became clear to me as I spoke with a group of Americans who had come to Seoul to attend the “Second International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees.” The individuals I spoke to were either self-confessed Republicans or sympathizers of that party and its presidential standard bearer. They were in no way expressing official positions, but they left little doubt that they consider the policy pursued by the Kim Dae Jung government as misconceived and heading in the wrong direction.
“We must help the North Korean regime leave the scene. We must stop saving the regime,” said one speaker from the United States. Asked what he proposed as an alternative to engagement, the U.S. expert and author of a book on North Korea said: “Let North Korea collapse, and let us then manage the collapse.” Another speaker was more straightforward in his rejection of the policy of the Seoul government: “Everyone who is not intoxicated must realize that the sunshine policy is really a moonshine policy.”
The frustration of the U.S. experts and human-rights activists is understandable as the sunshine policy has not changed the horrendous state of affairs of human rights in North Korea — at least, not yet. Also, the policy of engagement has done nothing to weaken the position of communist dictator Kim Jong Il (or Kim Jong-Evil, as one of the participants insisted on calling the North Korean leader).
But that begs another question: Have past efforts aimed at isolating and destabilizing the communist regime achieved any tangible results to improve the lot of the North Korean people and weaken the regime? There is a short and very clear answer to this query: No.
On the other hand, the sunshine approach has for the first time in decades opened the door to the most reclusive regime in the world. It has also helped produce an atmosphere of cooperation and a basis for dialogue, thus initiating a historical process that will eventually lead to more normal relations on the Korean Peninsula and, finally, to peaceful unification. For very good reasons the historical wisdom of this approach has been acknowledged by awarding its main promoter this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
South Koreans like to look to West Germany for lessons in to manage relations with a communist half of a divided nation. From those studies the South Koreans know that the best way to overcome the communists is to engage them.
George Bush, father of the president-elect, has a wonderful legacy: He was the Western statesman who earlier than all others supported unconditionally the German aspiration for unification. His son might be offered the same historic opportunity in the case of the Koreas. A precondition would be to first support the sunshine policy and its underlying strategy, and not sabotage it, as some pessimists fear.
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