South Korea: a return to the Sunshine Policy could prove dangerous

Author: John Hemmings, CSIS, Honolulu

Some have speculated that South Korea’s electorate, unhappy with Lee Myung-bak’s handling of relations with North Korea, wants a return to Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun’s liberal policies — and with them, the Sunshine Policy, or greater engagement with Pyongyang.

With a new, young leader in power in North Korea, it would seem the right time to try something different — a new approach for a new era.

After all, the effectiveness of Lee’s hard-line policy toward North Korea has increasingly been called into question. Tying inter-Korean relations to progress on the nuclear issue may have pleased Washington, but it quickly destroyed South Korea’s developing relationship with the North. Since 2007, North Korea has shot a South Korean tourist, withdrawn from the Six-Party Talks, tested another nuclear device, sunk a South Korean vessel and shelled civilians on an island in South Korea. If anything, it seems that Lee’s policy has only raised inter-Korean tensions.

The Sunshine Policy would arguably bring North Korea back from teetering on the edge of financial collapse and enrich the state enough to feed its people. Instead of being backed into a corner, North Korea could follow China’s path and enact financial reforms in select areas, which would benefit both the population and the country’s neighbours. A wealthier North Korea would not feel so threatened, would not rely on threats and provocations to secure aid, and might even begin the long process of political liberalisation that so often accompanies economic reform.

All of this sounds very promising and hopeful, but it is unlikely to work. And even if it did, it could cause serious unintended consequences.

There are two reasons for this. First, the Sunshine Policy failed to produce the desired results the first time round because it never linked warmer relations with the North to progress on the nuclear issue, political liberalism or human rights conditions. It therefore did not push North Korea to shift its own strategy. North–South ties became less acrimonious, but this arguably came at great cost to South Korea’s security. While Seoul operated under Kim and Roh’s liberal policies, the North continued to build up its military, withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (2003), tested a nuclear device (2006), continued research and development on its short-range and long-range missile program, and withdrew from the Six-Party Talks (2007). The cost-benefit ratio for symbolic goods was simply too high for the South.

Second, the Sunshine Policy rests on the false assumption that political liberalisation naturally follows on from market reforms. This may not always be true. Supporters of the Sunshine Policy often point to the success the West had in opening up Chinese markets, and the changes wrought on Chinese society since Mao. This misses an important point: is the region really better off now that China is rich? Certainly, it is a real achievement that so many Chinese people have been lifted from poverty, but a rising China has also presented the region with many new security challenges. States along China’s coastline, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan, are now dealing with a bolder, more assertive China. This illustrates that there are unintended consequences to everything.

Do we really wish to enrich North Korea and give it the modern military that it thinks it deserves? Those who wish to rely on the liberal assumption are overlooking not only the unintended consequences, but also the fundamental nature of the regime. The Kim family derives its support from a uniquely Korean nationalist ideology, Juche (Self-reliance), adopted and upheld by the military. According to North Korea’s highest-ranking defector, Hwang Jang-yop, the regime derives its support from the military, with the implicit promise that the state’s ultimate purpose is to unify Korea. Would the regime jettison this belief simply because there was more money in the bank?

Finally, this assumption overlooks the nature of the Korean situation. Large segments of the population in both North and South Korea still believe in reunification. But while a wealthier China was able to develop stronger economic ties with Taiwan, for example, it was also able to continue developing its missile arsenal across the Taiwanese Strait. Similarly, a wealthier and militarily stronger Pyongyang would probably lessen any possibility of a Korean unification in the long run.

The Sunshine Policy is a good idea, based on a good principle. Unfortunately, it ignores the realities on the peninsula and the nature of the regime in the North, while also resting on a host of faulty assumptions.

John Hemmings is an SPF Fellow at Pacific Forum, CSIS, Honolulu.