South Korea’s sunshine policy may finally have softened the stance of one of the Earth’s most feared rogue states. For the first time, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, has agreed to meet with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung for a June 12-14 summit in Pyongyang.
The summit is the fruition of South Korea’s patient and scarcely reciprocated strategy of engagement, known as the sunshine policy. The meeting is both a political and substantive triumph for the South Korean president since dialogue is the best vehicle for alleviating military tension. As with anything that involves North Korea, though, there are many reasons to be skeptical about its potential for success.
In January of last year, some observers had become guardedly optimistic regarding peace talks that South and North Korea would hold in Geneva with China and the United States. The North took an alarmingly bellicose tone, however, after it accused South Korea and the United States of kidnapping a senior diplomat who, along with his wife, had been missing for several days and was reportedly seeking asylum in the United States. “If the U.S. imperialists, their henchmen and followers dare unleash a war against …North Korea, the Korean people and revolutionary armed forces will never miss the opportunity to plunge the provokers into a sea of fire and to reduce them to ashes,” said the North’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper.
The North has continued to make similarly confrontational statements without provocation. In April of last year, North Korea said America would “face a fate of a tiger moth” if it foolishly attacked the North. In October, it said joint U.S.-South Korea military exercise were “the most offensive and dangerous war gamble.” Rhetorically, the North Korean regime is one of the most belligerent on earth. In dealing with such a volatile regime, it is difficult to anticipate just how a summit meeting would end, or even if the North would ultimately allow it to occur. South Korea must be careful, therefore, to balance its sunshine policy wisely.
The North Koreans have been suffering a severe famine that has claimed anywhere from 200,000 to 2 million lives. In order to control a potentially restive population, the regime must constantly flex its military might to impress and frighten its starving masses. Although this flexing is directed towards other countries, it is intended for domestic consumption.
The North Korean leader is also partial to rallying patriotism and support by making a foreign attack, from the United States or South Korea, look ever imminent. The regime thereby becomes the people’s “protector.” Any easing of military tension on the Korean peninsula therefore, runs counter to the North’s strategies. The regime doesn’t make any movement towards peace unless it has been “paid.”
This the Clinton administration has been more than happy to do. In 1994, it promised to give the North fuel aid if it promised to discontinue its nuclear program. Although North Korea receives more aid from the United States than any other Asian country, it rarely allows the United States to conduct weapons inspections, as agreed in the 1994 pact. The White House has failed to make North Korea live up to its signed agreement. The U.S. aid has served as a disincentive for peace. The more belligerent the North becomes, the more aid the Clinton administration has given.
The South Korean president, meanwhile, has vowed to make dialogue with the North a top priority since he was elected in 1997. Mr. Kim’s sunshine policy has been mainly conciliatory, but the president has also taken a firm stance in response to the North’s verbal attacks. The approach appears to be working. The announced summit is a success his party can point to in tomorrow’s parliamentary elections.
Mr. Kim should approach this opportunity cautiously. He should deliver aid to North Korea piecemeal, and only in response to material concessions. There’s no telling how the North would respond if it gets too much sunshine too soon.