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North Korean Nuclear Warning Brings Questions About Seoul's Engagement with Pyongyang

  • Kurt Achin

For the better part of a decade, South Korea has pursued a policy of engagement with North Korea known as the "sunshine policy." But recent missile tests and a potential nuclear test by Pyongyang threaten to turn the forecast cloudy.

The rays of sunshine from South Korea, aimed at opening up the Stalinist North after decades of inter-Korean hostility, have taken the form of billions of dollars worth of aid and projects.

In the six years since a historic summit between the leaders of the two Koreas, the South has also sent hundreds of thousands of tons of food and fertilizer northwards, built a tourist industry from scratch at the North's Mount Kumgang, and constructed a major industrial zone in the northern city of Kaesong.

However, recent actions by Pyongyang are making some South Koreans wonder if the money has been well spent. In July, North Korea defied warnings from Seoul and elsewhere by test-firing at least seven ballistic missiles.

Now, a year after Pyongyang promised South Korea and its partners - including the United States - it would end its nuclear programs, the North says it plans to test a nuclear device.

Moon Chung-in, a political science scholar at Seoul's Yonsei University, has been a frequent advisor to South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. He says a nuclear test by the North could mean an end to the South's policy of engagement.

"On the one hand, still some people in South Korea want to resolve the North Korea nuclear problem through further engagement. But others - perhaps the majority of the [South] Korean people - will not think in that way," he said. "The Roh Moo-hyun government will be under heavy pressure from the public [for] some kind of suspension of the Mount Kumgang Project and Kaesong project."

Park Se-il, a professor of International Relations at Seoul National University, who recently started a politically conservative scholar's organization, says the sunshine policy has been a failure, and needs to be re-examined.

He says the original intention of the sunshine policy was to bring about change in the North - but all it has managed to do is support Pyongyang with material aid. He says Seoul needs to demand that North Korea reciprocate for the South's assistance by opening up and reforming.

There are still diehard backers of engagement, like Lee Jang-hie, whose views are fairly typical of the country's left-of-center political spectrum.

Lee, an international legal scholar at Seoul's Hanguk University of Foreign Studies, and the leader of several North-South reconciliation groups, blames the United States for pushing Pyongyang into actions that are now being condemned worldwide.

Lee accuses the Bush administration of taking a hard line on North Korea to make up for what he describes as U.S. failures in Iraq. He says Washington should have lifted sanctions against North Korean financial interests to jump start negotiations on the North's nuclear programs.

The United States says those sanctions are a law enforcement measure aimed at protecting U.S. interests from North Korean counterfeiting and money laundering, and are a separate matter from the nuclear weapons talks. Washington has been working with South Korea to persuade North Korea to resume those talks.

South Korea's Unification Ministry, usually reluctant to penalize the North, has already shown signs of a firmer policy toward Pyongyang. The ministry did send emergency aid after floods swept the North in July, but the usual food and fertilizer aid to the North were suspended following early July's missile launches.

Ministry officials warned Wednesday that a nuclear test could produce what they describe as a "shift" in the engagement policy. However, even with a North Korean nuclear test closer at hand than ever before, ministry officials are saying the South is not ready to abandon the sunshine policy altogether.

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