South Korea’s newly elected president will travel to the United States later this year for direct talks with President Bush. President Roh Moo Hyun was voted into office on his pledge to continue South Korea’s so-called “sunshine policy” or engagement with the North. This is a policy the Bush Administration considers a failure, even more so in light of revelations that North Korea has a highly enriched uranium program and has developed nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the United States has begun its military campaign to disarm Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. This has lead many to question why the United States hasn’t paid the same amount of attention to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il and his weapons of mass destruction. South Koreans in particular are alarmed by the Bush Administration’s refusal to hold direct talks with Pyongyang.
According to Katy Oh, a staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, many South Koreans fault the United States for provoking the current North Korean crisis.
“I think a majority of South Koreans tend to blame the current Bush Administration as the main culprit of today’s tense and hostile confrontation between North Korea and the United States,” she said. “Many South Koreans believe that the U-S should have talked to North Koreans, and bilateral dialogue would not hurt the situation.”
The United States has said it is willing to talk to North Korea in a multi-lateral forum, like the United Nations, where Washington believes such talks belong. While refusing bilateral talks, the Bush Administration has publicly stated that it has no plans to attack North Korea.
Still North Korea continues to take threatening military actions. Many believe it is preparing to test-fire a ballistic missile for the first time since 1998. Given these bellicose moves, Katy Oh says many in the West are shocked by the South Koreans’ rather relaxed attitude toward their northern neighbor.
“It is very bizarre and strange because South Koreans, both the population and the policy elite, so far have shown very lax, very na?ve attitudes and sentiments toward the so-called nuclear rising in North Korea,” she said.
Analysts cite two main factors behind South Koreans’ outwardly calm response to nuclear-armed North Korea. One is the so-called “sunshine policy,” established by former president Kim Dae Jung. It emphasizes reconciliation and cooperation.
The other factor is the generation gap. South Koreans in their mid 40’s and older tend to be more conservative and very suspicious of the North, while those under the age of 40 have no memory of the Korean War. They hold a romanticized view of how to reunite the Korean peninsula.
The age gap affects how South Koreans view their relationship with the United States. Alan Romberg, senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington-based research organization, says younger South Koreans want their country to have more of a say in how the United States deals with North Korea.
“On the one hand, there’s a very strong view that the United States needs to engage with North Korea directly to try to resolve the current nuclear standoff,” he said. “And at the same time over the past many years, the South has been concerned, has resented the fact that the United States seemed to be in the lead in many respects in dealing with North Korea. The 1994 Agreed Framework was a U.S. - North Korea deal, even though the United States consulted very closely with South Korea as they went along.”
South Koreans also resent the Bush Administration’s intense criticism of their sunshine policy. But Bill Drennan, deputy director of research at the United States Institute of Peace, notes that any progress from the sunshine policy has been symbolic. There has not been any real attempt to address the military threat that the North poses to the South. Yet despite this lack of progress, President Roh wants to continue his predecessor’s policy.
“President Roh is very much an unknown quantity, obviously a very talented and determined man. I think it would be a huge mistake to underestimate Roh Moo Hyun,” he said.
“But he did campaign on continuing the sunshine policy, which has now, even in South Korea, become thoroughly discredited because there’s very, very strong evidence, almost irrefutable evidence, that the summit was bought and paid for. In other words, hundreds of millions of dollars flowed to the North in exchange for this made-for-television summit meeting,” Mr. Drennan said.
Former president Kim is facing a criminal investigation over these cash-for-summit allegations. Reports that his June 2000 summit with Kim Jong-Il was purchased by a secret transfer via the South Korean Hyundai corporation of some $500 million to North Korea led the former president to issue a public apology. The summit was the first meeting of the North and South leaders since the Korean War divided the country, and it earned President Kim a Nobel Peace Prize.
Katy Oh agrees the sunshine policy has flaws, but she says the spirit of the policy has been widely embraced by South Koreans who want to see it continue, although in a revised form.
“I think that the new President Roh has made it very clear that he would like to support the sunshine policy very much, but he also made a couple of distinctions,” she said. “Number one, he emphasized that we should not use the words ‘sunshine policy’ and instead we should use the words ‘policy of peace and prosperity and reconciliation’. And also he emphasized that transparency is very important.”
A majority of South Koreans hope to see the two Koreas reunited one day, says Bill Drennan, much as East and West Germany came together. But if reunification is desirable on an emotional and even nationalistic level, the particulars make it extremely complicated.
“A lot of attention has been paid in the past to the German example. And there are some surface similarities, but you peel back just one layer of that onion and what’s remarkable are the differences in the divided German and the divided Korean situation,” he said.
“North Korea is a country after all that cannot even and will not even feed its people. There are no human rights. There is no freedom. It is the world’s most perfect totalitarian state, and yet it’s got this romantic appeal to younger South Koreans that I just find mind-boggling,” Mr. Drennan said.
Disagreement over how to handle North Korea has strained the U.S. - South Korea relationship more than at any time in the past. Even so, the Stimson Center’s Alan Romberg says the alliance will continue to mature.
“I think that at heart the new administration is strongly committed to a very robust U.S. - South Korean relationship, continuing to strengthen the alliance even as arrangements under it might be adjusted, in fact to make it more lasting. An example is the pattern of deployment of U.S. forces in South Korea,” he said.
“I don’t think that we should kid ourselves that there aren’t some problems, and I think dealing with North Korea, depending on how that goes, could become a point of some friction between the two. But my sense is that both sides are fully committed to not letting that happen,” Mr. Romberg added.
Observers say the upcoming meeting between South Korea’s President Roh and U.S. President Bush will be the first step toward reaffirming the long-standing ties between the two allies. They say it’s a relationship neither side can afford to lose.