Since US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted his North Korean counterpart Kang Seok-ju in October 2002 with evidence that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) was involved in a clandestine programme of nuclear weapon development through the enrichment of uranium, the question that has been inexorably forming in all South Koreans’ minds is whether or not to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea as the price of ongoing rapprochement. The latest policy moves by Seoul, while holding out the possibility of increased economic and humanitarian aid to the impoverished North, provide a definitive ‘no’ to that question.
Although the similarities with the situation that pertained on the Korean Peninsula during the last nuclear crisis in 1993-4 are indeed striking, on closer reflection it is the differences that are much more significant.
Just as in 1993-4, Pyongyang has again played its nuclear card in an attempt to blackmail the international community into providing the security guarantees the regime considers vital for its long-term survival. To the horror of Seoul’s allies at that time, South Korean opinion polls showed that a clear majority felt no threat from the North’s alleged development of nuclear weapons; most Koreans believed, rightly or wrongly, that Pyongyang would never use nuclear weapons against its brothers, but would rather use them to attack Japan and the American troops stationed there. One respondent noting proudly that having a nuclear-armed North was like: ‘having a big brother who’s really good at fighting’. Seoul’s exclusion from the negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang that eventually resulted in the signing of the 1994 Geneva Accords – popularly known as the Agreed Framework – further distanced South Koreans from the realities of life with a nuclear-armed and belligerent neighbour which has never officially renounced its policy of unifying the Peninsula by force.
A number of factors make today’s nuclear standoff very different from the last: first, despite its exclusion from the negotiations on the Agreed Framework, Seoul did agree to foot the lion’s share of the bill for the two light water reactors (LWR) that were to be the price for Pyongyang freezing its nuclear programmes; second, the ‘sunshine’ policy of South Korea’s last president, Kim Dae-jung, has, despite its many detractors, transformed the balance of power between the two Koreas and considerably added to Seoul’s weight in the Korean equation; third, although Pyongyang’s long-held policy of pursuing relations with Washington while seeking to isolate Seoul (Tongmi bongnam) may have once garnered some understanding if not sympathy among some South Koreans, after sunshine’s largesse, Pyongyang’s arrogant manoeuvrings provoke increasing anger in the South.
Of course, Pyongyang’s most disastrous miscalculation has been its failure to appreciate the change in US foreign policy since the events of 11 September 2001, and Washington’s determination to preserve the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime.
The Bush administration’s hard-line on North Korea, which pre-dates 9/11, has, besides heaping pressure on Pyongyang, also tested Seoul’s loyalties and priorities. This test has grown in severity with the unfolding of events on the world stage and the post 9/11 War on Terrorism, to become ever more sharply posed. In essence, Seoul has had to choose between its sunshine dreams of inter-Korean rapprochement and flowering solidarity, and the alliance that has guaranteed its safety and provided the security infrastructure within which its economic development and rapid rise in living standards have impressed the world. After Pyongyang’s lukewarm and often-dismissive response to sunshine, there can be little real doubt as to how any government in Seoul would have chosen.
‘Sunshine’: Successes and Failures
As originally envisaged, the sunshine policy’s aims were twofold: to prevent a catastrophic collapse of the Kim Jong-il regime and a subsequent disastrously precipitate and expensive re-unification of the Korean Peninsula; and, to induce positive change in the North Korean regime. Six years after its implementation, the consensus among Seoul’s political circles is that while the first goal has certainly been achieved, the second has not. Although positive signs have emerged from the North that the regime has finally and perhaps irrevocably taken the path of economic reform – particularly with the introduction of market forces for the first time into the DPRK’s autarkic economic system in July last year – the North’s continued prioritization of its relations with Washington rather than Seoul, pursuit of nuclear weapons, and its widespread state-sponsored anti-social transnational criminal activities, have disappointed hopes of political reform and of the adoption of a more honest, open and positive approach to its relations with the South.
However, one of sunshine’s clearest successes has been in redressing the balance in inter-Korean relations. Prior to sunshine, Seoul’s policy towards its northern neighbour was characterized by knee-jerk reactions to Pyongyang’s often-provocative behaviour. This always resulted in Pyongyang effectively holding the initiative in North-South relations. Steadfast pursuit of sunshine’s basic tenet – the separation of economic aid from political progress – has over the years since the policy’s inception imbued Seoul’s policies with maturity and confidence.
Furthermore, and perhaps most significantly, joint economic projects like the Keumgang Mountain tourism Project, coupled with the steady provision of growing quantities of humanitarian aid have, in a very concrete way, immeasurably strengthened Seoul’s bargaining hand with Pyongyang and provided it for the first time with real economic leverage in negotiations. In recent weeks, this tendency has been underlined by Pyongyang’s belated recognition and praise of the sunshine policy. Although many would argue that this is merely the regime’s attempt to foster inter-Korean relations as a counterweight to US pressure and the threat of military intervention, there is growing evidence that Pyongyang is becoming ever more dependent on its southern neighbour’s charity.
Despite sunshine’s impressive list of successes, and the almost universal support it gained from the wider international community, the policy met – from its inception – with considerable opposition among older, more conservative elements in South Korean society. For those who experienced the horrors of the 1950-3 Korean War, and were imbued with the vitriolic anti-communist propaganda of previous South Korean regimes, sunshine was anathema, and amounted to little more than succour for the ‘enemy’. The greatest difficulty facing any South Korean government in its espousal of a policy of engagement with the North, and paradoxically this difficulty has grown rather than diminished with South Korea’s successful democratization, has been and remains the forging of a truly national consensus on policy. Sunshine’s domestic detractors have been consistently fortified in their arguments by Pyongyang’s dismissive attitude to Seoul’s hand of friendship; Kim Jong-il’s refusal to effectively address emotive issues such as the hundreds of thousands of first generation divided family members who have had no news or contact with their relatives for half a century, lethal naval encounters in the Yellow Sea and ingratitude for significant amounts of South Korean humanitarian aid and economic assistance. The constant refrain from conservatives who would prefer a policy of containment has always been: ‘we give them rice and money, and they do nothing but show us the barrels of their guns’.
After five years of patient perseverance with sunshine’s main theoretical tenet of the division of aid from political progress, even liberal South Koreans were beginning to feel the strain of supporting a policy which was widely seen as being in need of replacement or, at the very least, revision. In the December 2002 Presidential election in South Korea, unification policy took centre stage for the first time since the adoption of a democratic constitution in 1987. The two candidates: Grand National Party leader and conservative Lee Hoi-chang, and Millennium Democratic Party candidate and ex-human rights lawyer Roh Moo-hyun were clearly seen as being respectively anti- and pro- sunshine. However, in light of the growing disappointment at what sunshine was popularly perceived to have achieved, and in the aftermath of the renewal of tensions on the Peninsula after the October revelations, even liberal Roh Moo-hyun, in the run up to the December poll, let it be known that he was ‘unhappy’ with ‘certain aspects’ of the policy, and that, if elected, would take steps to revise it. Despite widespread predictions that the nuclear issue would favour the conservative Lee, a successful mobilization of the younger generation in support of Roh, innovatively using the Internet to ensure a high turnout, led to the election by a narrow margin of the liberal candidate. Nonetheless, the damage done to the meagre store of inter-Korean solidarity and trust accrued by sunshine by the threat of a nuclear-armed North ensured the revision of the policy.
President Roh Moo-hyun’s recent pronouncement that he felt ‘betrayed’ by North Korea’s nuclear programme was the precursor of a very real change in Seoul’s policy of engagement. A key element of the sunshine policy was the separation of economic assistance from any political progress (or lack of) in relations between the two Koreas, but this has effectively been abandoned. The 1.5 million tons of rice Seoul has promised to the North over the coming three years will be classified as humanitarian assistance, which implicitly exempts any future political sanction. However by stating that future economic aid will be contingent on progress towards a resolution of the nuclear issue, (i.e., Pyongyang’s dismantling of its nuclear programmes in a verifiable and permanent way), Seoul has intrinsically linked economic aid and political progress.
Prospects for the Future
The recent successful summit between US President George W. Bush and ROK President Roh Moo-hyun has done much to dispel the rather exaggerated worries surrounding the future of the two allies’ fifty-year alliance. In recent weeks the de facto campaign of interdiction of North Korean vessels to strangle the Pyongyang regime’s earnings from illegal activities such as the distribution of counterfeit currency and drugs – aimed, of course, at preventing any eventual proliferation of nuclear technology or hardware – will also strengthen Seoul’s role in any process aimed at a resolution of the nuclear crisis, whilst at the same time leaving Seoul out of the actual business of interdiction itself. This measured and apparently well-coordinated policy regime of ‘sanction without sanctions’ among Seoul and her chief allies, the US and Japan, leaves Pyongyang with little choice but to acquiesce with the world’s desires to see it dismantle its nuclear programmes. While Russia and China may or may not become involved in efforts to restrict Pyongyang’s earnings from illicit activities, they are clearly united with the ROK, Japan and the US in their determination to prevent at all costs the nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the subsequent arms race in Northeast Asia that such a scenario will inevitably engender.
For Pyongyang’s part, in light of the virtual drying up of donations to the longstanding UN programmes to provide aid to the DPRK’s hard-pressed population, and with the constriction in its earnings from illegal activities, Seoul’s offers of significant food aid and the prospect of economic assistance may prove to be the only viable avenue of relief; the earning of currency through the proliferation of nuclear technology or actual weapons in the present climate would prove suicidal for the Kim Jong-il regime. Such relief, however, will come at a price, and that price can only be the ‘complete and verifiable’ end to its nuclear programmes.
James A. Foley
Centre for Korean Studies
University of Sheffield