US, South Korea: Dangerous Policy Toward the North

The Obama administration of the US and the Lee Myung-bak government of South Korea alike have strategically distanced themselves from engaging with North Korea. As a result, North Korea stands at one of the most dangerous intersections in history, witness the torpedo attack that sank the gunboat Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

By placing the regime on a strikingly different path from what the previous administrations – the Bush and Clinton and Kim Dae-jung governments – had pursued, Washington and Seoul are seemingly seeking to push the regime to the point of collapse.

While North Korea's nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 obviously served as an excuse to prompt a radical rethinking about the goal of the denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, liberal pundits in favor of negotiations with the North assert that the conservative Lee government is, figuratively speaking, seeking to break the camel's back. Policymakers in the US and South Korea appear to have agreed between them that any economic engagement with Pyongyang eventually would only serve to prolong the life of the Stalinist regime, with its increasingly powerful nuclear arsenal.

But they didn't know that the box they were thinking outside of needed fixing. They mistakenly regarded the Sunshine Policy, formulated by the late President Kim Dae-jung, who won the Nobel Prize for Peace with it, as a failed legacy. The path they chose, which does not appear to include a coherent policy, proved that it was no way to resolve the fundamental problems of the North's denuclearization, let alone regime change via collapse, a big seller in the minds of decision-makers in Seoul and Washington.

The fact is, however, that the Sunshine policy produced considerable political contact between the two including two summit meetings in Pyongyang that ultimately resulted in several high-profile business ventures, and brought about highly emotional meetings between families who had been separated for decades by the onset of the Korean War in 1950.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration appears to favor the value of alliances between Washington and Seoul rather than direct contact with North Korea. By standing with the hawkish South, the Obama administration has become a valued partner of the right-wing government of President Lee. As always, the US was more a source of comfort in South Korea than elsewhere.

Having more often than not been dubious about Kim Dae-Jung landmark policy negotiation policy, President Lee has aggressively challenged the realistic values and unrevealed authenticity of the 'unsightly' sunshine policy. It's not because he didn't believe that it was the optimal strategy but because he believed that it implacably wrecked any chance at a normal relationship between the two Koreas. The former mayor of Seoul does not now feel the necessity of inter-Korean dialogue unless the North expresses its deepest sincerity over the recent provocations. Instead he likes to portray the desperate situation of North Korea as being totally beyond repair, reform, or improvement.

Lee's tough attitudes toward the North have not been choreographed well. A novice in both inter-Korean and foreign affairs, Lee was given fluctuating instructions as to where to breathe, pause, gesticulate, pick up his pace, lower or raise his voice. His pointy-headed policy aides on the North also emerged as skeptics in the real sense of the word. They started saying boldly that the disputed sunshine policy was focused on buying off the Kim families with a weighty past and a wobbly future rather than the absolute number of people in poverty and disease.

They joked that the engagement policy paradoxically widened the economic gap between the Kims' cohorts and their hardscrabble people, eventually slowing the collapse of the hopeless regime. From the perspective of today, it seems to go without saying that the fruits of the sunshine policy helped to minimize the economic sufferings in the wake of a series of the UN's rounds of sanctions over the North's refusal to abandon its nuclear weapons programs.

Withholding the carrots must look like a smart strategy to Lee and his supporters, who think it's appropriate that Seoul deflated the overpriced engagement policy. They claim that it was the sunshine policy that ruined the growing relationship between the two Koreas, as if the much-debated policy were a major source of obfuscating the denuclearization of the North.

Tolerance is thus treated as a kind of forbidden word to those who work in the Lee government. The phrase 'sunshine policy' is now virtually absent from official documents within the government. I know why. As the sunshine policy's biggest opponents, Lee and his strategists made their own judgment that the Kim regime could be driven to negotiating over its military provocations. It's because the foreign currency-strapped North is in desperate need of economic assistance from the South.

The repeal of the sunshine policy was no doubt painful to the North and energized to some extent the South's conservative base. The Lee government is, however, unaware of the fact that old wounds do not heal overnight. Over the past few decades, liberal and moderate North Korea-watchers and analysts have assumed that the engagement policies were premised on the assumption that the North would shift its focus from isolation to reform and openness in rationally calculating and maximizing its national interests.

Inevitably, the North's denuclearization should be made in the course of a combination of tough talks and cooperation other than military coercion and economic sanctions, as long as a stable North Korea is in China's best interests.

Unlike the much-ballyhooed 'collapse scenarios,' the sunshine engagement policy is neither a messianic idea nor a page-turner. Even though the policy became a politically obstreperous issue, it is, in this observer's view, a clear-cut piece of evidence in common people's beliefs about the reconciliation between the South and North Koreas.

No policies are perfect. So probably they need to be renewed in a more elaborate manner. Diplomacy is a hard process of seeking a better policy through a long and difficult journey of negotiations. Seoul and Washington need to out-excel the ossified sunshine policy, not drop it. They need to feel more responsibilities for shaping the half-baked policy of yesterday into a far better one that everyone can agreeably accept. That is the easiest way to win the denuclearization of the dangerous regime

Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.