- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 10, 2006

SEOUL — North Korea’s reported nuclear test on Monday could force South Korea to modify its engagement policy toward Pyongyang, but analysts do not expect a permanent return to containment.

“It has become difficult to stick to our engagement policy with the North,” South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said Monday. “We find it difficult to argue that such a policy is effective.”

A senior official dealing with Korean unification issues said yesterday that the president’s statement “will be reflected in our policy.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official added: “I would interpret the position as a modification of the engagement policy to reflect the new situation.”

Analysts said engagement cannot be totally discarded.

“I believe there is no other policy but engagement if you want to avoid war on the Korean Peninsula,” said Moon Chung-in, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University and former presidential adviser.

“There could be ups and downs, but the spirit of engagement, and of achieving peaceful reunification — these fundamental aspects cannot be changed,” he said.

“There is growing recognition that engagement has failed, but like the six-party talks, there is no clear alternative,” said Peter Beck, the head of the International Crisis Group’s Seoul office. “Neither sticks nor carrots are going to work until Washington and Seoul coordinate.”

Engagement has faced criticism from South Korean conservatives and caused diplomatic friction with Washington and Tokyo, which have argued for a harder line against Pyongyang. The North Korean nuclear tests, which Mr. Roh has always warned North Korea against doing, put the policy under immense domestic pressure, and Seoul is expected to face a diplomatic squeeze to fall into line with its allies.

North and South Korea were engaged in military and political confrontation from the 1950s to the 1990s until Seoul dramatically softened its stance after the election of longtime opposition leader Kim Dae-jung in 1997.

Announcing a “sunshine policy” — based on Aesop’s fable of bright sunshine, rather than a strong wind, persuading a man to remove his coat — Mr. Kim attempted to end the Cold War on the Peninsula.

Leveraging the ties of the late Hyundai tycoon Chung Ju-young with North Korea’s leadership, the North Korean resort of Mount Kumgang on the scenic eastern coast was opened to Southern tourists in 1998. A summit between Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il took place in Pyongyang 2000, earning Kim Dae-jung a Nobel Peace Prize. Cultural exchanges increased, as did Southern aid.

But the accession to power of George W. Bush’s conservative administration in Washington, and North Korea’s admission in 2002 that it had a uranium-enrichment program cast a shadow over the sunshine.

By the time a joint North-South industrial park near the North Korean city of Kaesong, an hour’s drive from Seoul, opened for business under Kim Dae-jung’s successor, Roh Moo-hyun, in 2005, the euphoria of 2000 had worn off.

On Monday, South Korea announced the cessation of humanitarian aid for victims of North Korea’s summer floods. After July’s missile tests, Seoul had suspended the expansion of the Kaesong industrial zone.

However, Hyundai Asan, the company which developed Kaesong and Kumgang — the physical cornerstones of engagement policy — said it had not been told to halt exchanges.

“So far there have been no requests from government,” Hyundai Vice President Jang Whan-bin said. He expected “some impact” from the test, but hoped the projects would continue.

Hyundai has remitted $450 million to the North for land rights and invested about $200 million in facilities at Keumgang. A million from the South have visited the resort. The South Korean-government-run Korea Land Corp. has invested about $100 million in Kaesong.

As for future expansion of the sites, Mr. Jang said: “We have to follow government decisions.”

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