SEOUL — A classical drama consists of five acts. Usually, the key part occurs in the third act. In this regard, the North Korea policy of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung may have something in common with classical theater.
Kim’s efforts aimed at reconciliation with the North have reached a historic climax in the third year of his term: The unprecedented summit meeting with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in June of last year, followed by the Nobel Peace Prize guarantee Kim Dae Jung a position in the pantheon of Korea’s national heroes.
At midterm, the president has achieved more than had generally been expected of him. In a democracy, it is not unusual that the opposition highlights negative points and has difficulty acknowledging the government’s achievements. For this reason, when evaluating the Sunshine Policy I attach more weight to the judgment of foreign experts and analysts than to the opinion of the domestic opposition, which all too often is guided by partisan considerations. Beyond the shores of this country, the praise and admiration for Kim’s policy is undivided.
When assessing Kim’s North Korea policy, the summit in Pyongyang should receive special attention. The event changed politics in this part of the world. The summit laid the political groundwork for peace and reconciliation, with the aim of eventual unification. Every single paragraph of the North-South Declaration signed on June 15, 2000 contains a program aimed at a radical change of the political status quo on the divided peninsula.
When Kim came to power in early 1998, he inherited not only a desperate economic situation — itself a nightmare for South Korean society since it had forgotten, after years of economic achievement, what misery means. Looking north, the incoming president also confronted a situation of tension and conflict, and a virtually complete absence of direct communication.
On Feb. 25, 1998, President Kim proclaimed the three golden rules that would guide his policy. “First, we will never tolerate armed provocation of any kind. Second, we do not have any intention of undermining or absorbing North Korea. Third, we will actively pursue reconciliation and cooperation between the South and the North.”
The diplomatic process took place on two levels. In Geneva, delegates from the two Koreas, the United States and China met to find permanent peace for the divided peninsula. Not much came of these talks. In fact, minute progress on a procedural issue pertaining to the introduction of working groups was hailed as a major achievement.
The second center of the diplomatic process was Beijing, where, after a four-year hiatus, the first government-level meeting between the two Koreas was held in April 1998. Seoul aimed at a political tradeoff: The South would deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid to the North in return for Pyongyang’s concessions on the issue of divided families. But the talks in Beijing failed to produce substantial results.
Historians dealing with the Korean unification process are advised to take a closer look at developments in March 2000. That month President Kim visited Berlin and delivered what may be called his most important speech regarding relations with the North. Kim made three important promises to North Korean rulers: He would guarantee their security, assist their economic recovery efforts, and actively support them in the international arena.
At the same time as Kim was touring Europe to mobilize international diplomatic support for his Sunshine Policy, the two Koreas started secret negotiations with the aim of holding a summit meeting between the two leaders.
What caused the North Koreans to suddenly accept the South Korean invitation to meet on the highest political level? Kim gave an answer last September.
First, he said, North Koreans had come to trust his Sunshine Policy. Second, he mentioned firm U.S. support. Third, global public opinion called for inter-Korean dialogue. And, finally, the most decisive reason was that North Korea needed to overcome its economic difficulties.
The North-South summit laid the groundwork for a multitude of inter-Korean interactions in diplomacy, economics, culture, the media and military relations. Most progress has been achieved in the political and economic fields. Public attention has been directed at the family reunions. Everyone agrees that much remains to be done regarding intra-Korean relations. Everyone knows there is still a long way to go before relations between the two Koreas may be called normal in any sense of this word. But there should be no doubt that a historic process has been initiated.
In spite of his enormous accomplishments, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate remains modest about plans for the rest of his term: “During my tenure, I would never seek unification. My objective is to prevent war on the Korean Peninsula and to promote inter-Korean exchanges and contacts,” he said shortly after the summit last summer.
The South Korean government says it will take two to three decades for the two Koreas to reunite. This means that future leaders will bring the process of reconciliation to an end. Unlike the classical Greek drama, where the hero usually meets tragedy in the final act, President Kim deserves to be remembered as a political statesman with a great vision — and (so far) a successful record of promoting it.
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.