North and South Korea are facing their gravest crisis since the end of the Korean War as South Korea threatens to retaliate against North Korea for sinking one of its warships. Forty-six sailors died in the torpedo attack by a North Korean submarine.
Yet only a decade ago, South Korean politicians and pundits were saying that five decades of political containment and economic isolation had "failed" and should be replaced with a new policy of engagement and reconciliation toward the totalitarian regime of North Korea's Kim Jong-il. The rest of the world had moved on past the Cold War, they argued, while the Koreas were still trapped in a state of conflict and mistrust.
If that sounds familiar, it's because opponents of U.S. sanctions policy use the same argument regarding Cuba.
In 1997, Kim Dae-Jung was elected president of South Korea by a new generation of South Koreans who didn't share their grandparents' horrific war experiences and viewed North Korea as a harmless Cold War relic. A year later, Mr. Kim began articulating his sunshine policy of greater political and economic contact between the Koreas to create an atmosphere conducive to change and reform in North Korea. The policy was greeted with great international fanfare. Mr. Kim and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il held a high-level summit in Pyongyang, initiating high-profile business ventures, and a series of family reunification visits commenced. Kim Dae-Jung was awarded the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize.
Critics, however, were voicing concerns that unconditionally fostering better relations with the North Korean regime while ignoring the repressive, belligerent nature of its dictatorship would prop up Kim Jong-il at a time of economic vulnerability and uncertainty. The Soviet Union, which had been North Korea's main supplier of military and economic aid, had collapsed just years earlier.
Ten years later, the critics have been proved correct. The sunshine policy provided the North Korean regime the wherewithal to become an international nuclear menace while intensifying the brutal oppression of its population.
Nonetheless, there are U.S. politicians and pundits arguing today that it's time for the United States to set aside its policy of isolation and containment toward Cuba and the Castro regime and adopt its own sunshine policy of dialogue and engagement.
Similarities abound in the relationships between South and North Korea and between the United States and Cuba. The two Koreas share a geographical and cultural proximity. While the population of South Korea is only twice that of North Korea, its economy is 30 times greater than that of the North, making it the North's most natural source of income.
The United States and Cuba also share geographical and cultural proximity. Thanks to a large Cuban-American community, the United States is Cuba's most natural (and currently most pursued) source of income. The purchasing power of 2 million Cuban-Americans residing in the U.S. is 30 times that of Cuba's 11.5 million people, so Cuba looks to the United States as a natural source of income.
Similarities also abound in the regimes of North Korea and Cuba. In addition to their daunting totalitarian tastes for control and repression, the regimes of Kim Jong-il in North Korea and Raul and Fidel Castro in Cuba also share a pathological hatred for the United States and the unenviable distinction of remaining the world's sole communist command-economies. Both countries are unwilling, irrational and unreliable partners.
North Korea didn't use the billions in aid and trade that flowed out of South Korea's sunshine policy for the benefit of its people. Neither did it undertake any discernible political or economic reforms. North Korea used the money to solidify its repressive control at home and be a regional menace.
The same can be said of every penny Cuba's regime has received from abroad, be it the aid from the Soviet Union in the 1980s, from European and Canadian tourists throughout the 1990s or from Venezuelan oil for the past 10 years. People's lives in Cuba didn't improve one bit, but Castro's internal repression and regional menace increased proportionally.
The Castro brothers' regime has been crippled by its current economic crisis. It is facing a determined pro-democracy movement led by such courageous leaders as Guillermo Farinas, now in the third month of a hunger strike, and the Ladies in White. It is beset by domestic criticism and calls for change from a new generation of bloggers and independent journalists. And it has been internationally discredited by the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo in an 85-day hunger strike protesting the use of torture in Cuba.
The United States has a choice to make: It can just give the Castro regime the "sunshine" and legitimacy that it so desperately wants, or it can remain steadfast in its demand that Cuba first demonstrate respect for human rights and begin enacting democratic reforms.
As South Korea's sunshine policy demonstrates, only after the sun sets on repression can it shine on and for the people of Cuba.
Mauricio Claver-Carone is a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and founding editor of CapitolHillCubans.com in Washington.
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