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Korean Reconciliation Efforts Stalled at Year End - 2001-12-21

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's effort to improve relations with rival North Korea stalled over the past year. Experts say the so-called Sunshine Policy was a victim of skepticism from Washington, partisan bickering in Seoul, and the North's broken promises. But some analysts expect reconciliation efforts to continue, perhaps under a new name.

Hopes for reconciliation soared after the historic June 2000 meeting in Pyongyang between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. It was the first meeting of the leaders of the divided peninsula in about 50 years.

The South's President Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his effort to defuse the political and military rivalry on the Korean Peninsula.

A series of exchanges sustained hopes for better relations, as Koreans watched brief, emotional reunions of families separated for half a century. The two sides agreed on a series of confidence building measures, including re-establishing road and rail links between North and South.

But the family reunions have stopped, the rail links are unfinished in the North and the two governments are bickering over the money losing tourism project at Mount Kumgang in North Korea.

Professor Chun In-young of Seoul National University says the North's broken promises are partly to blame for the stalled Sunshine Policy. "Last year's atmosphere was more optimistic. [South Korean] President Kim went to Pyongyang, it was a kind of jubilant atmosphere, everyone was excited," he says. "But within one year it subsided at least partly because North Korea has not properly responded to South Korea."

Professor Im Hyug-baeg, of Korea University's political science department, says the change in U.S. administrations in early 2001 also dampened the optimism. The Bush administration called for a review of U.S. policy on North Korea, prompting concerns on the Peninsula that Washington would take a more hardline stance. North Korea, in response, stepped up its rhetoric and began to back out of agreed meetings.

Professor Im says partisan criticism from South Korean conservatives made the problem worse. They complained that President Kim was giving a great deal to North Korea and getting little in return. "Many South Korean conservatives ... obstructed the government's efforts to assist North Korea. The opposition assemblymen tried to make legislation to control, constrain the government's economic aid to North Korea," he says.

In the past few months, Pyongyang has canceled or delayed family reunions, sports events and government meetings. The North says South Korea's heightened security stance in the wake of September's terror attacks in the United States makes it unsafe to hold such events.

Other analysts say next year's presidential election is heating up the political atmosphere in South Korea, reducing the chance of progress on reconciliation.

South Korea's President Kim, who by law can not run for re-election, recently resigned as leader of his party, after it suffered an electoral loss. The move could make his reconciliation policy less of a partisan target. But he is still pursuing it and has traveled to several European nations to build international support.

Professor Im says the effort is not likely to save the Sunshine Policy and will not give President Kim the assembly votes he needs to move his agenda forward. "I'm very pessimistic about the prospects of resuming the dialogue and the exchange between North and South under the name of the Sunshine policy," he says.

But Professor Im says the policy's critics admit they do not have a better plan to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula. He says the reconciliation effort will probably continue, even if a different party comes to power next year and uses a different name for the policy.

Prospects for Korean reconciliation attract global attention because of the potential for conflict on the peninsula. More than one million troops are poised on the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries, facing more than 600,000 South Korean soldiers.

It has been that way since 1953, when the Korean War ended in an uneasy truce rather than a peace treaty.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001