Korea Needs a Return to Sunshine Policy

Korea Needs a Return to Sunshine Policy

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Editor's Note: The sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March, some two years after the inauguration of Seoul's conservative government, sounded the death knell for the Sunshine Policy of reconciliation with the North pursued by the South's previous liberal administrations. Chung Dong-young, a veteran South Korean politician, former Unification Minister and one-time favorite to succeed the late President Roh Moo-hyun, says a return to the principles of the June 15 Declaration that produced the Sunshine Policy is needed to promote both peace and prosperity.

Ten years ago, the leaders of the divided Koreas met in the North's capital of Pyongyang in what became a watershed moment in Korea's modern history, heralding a new era of reconciliation after decades of animosity and on-again off-again military tension. Today that specter of "Sunshine" is gone, replaced by clouds of war that threaten both regional stability and South Korea's economic well being.

Five years after that meeting in June between then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, I traveled to Pyongyang as a presidential envoy. Discussions with Chairman Kim Jong-il produced several key agreements, including steps towards resolving the long-standing dispute over the North's nuclear weapons program and a final peace settlement ending the 1950-53 Korean War.

The goodwill fostered during this period also saw the expansion of the inter-Korean industrial complex in the North's border town of Kaesong, where as recently as last year , close to 100 South Korean firms employed some 40,000 North Korean workers, as well as a declaration by Pyongyang of its intent to dismantle its nuclear program and Seoul's granting North Korean cargo ships access to southern waters.

These and other steps produced perhaps the first real sense of optimism that reunification was in fact possible, that 10 years on families separated by war would finally be reunited and that Koreans would be able to travel freely via a new railroad network across the Peninsula and farther on into China and Central Asia in search of opportunity.

Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy of reconciliation with the North through economic and other incentives, continued by his successor Roh Moo-hyun, helped create an atmosphere of peace across the Peninsula that became essential to increased investment from abroad and greater economic growth. Peace became the necessary lubricant for South Korea's prosperity, the US$2 billion spent on rice and fertilizer aid paling in comparison to the benefits gained and the losses threatened by heightened tension and war.

Addressing the nation from Seoul's War Memorial, current President Lee Myung-bak announced in May of this year the results of an international investigation into the sinking of the South Korean naval corvette Cheonan. The economy tumbled and millions disappeared as investors fled for fear of open conflict now that Seoul was officially holding the North responsible, following months of rumors and speculation.

The inauguration of the current administration in 2008 and its reversal of the Sunshine Policy in favor of a more hard line on the North has returned Korea to an era 10 years earlier when inter-Korean exchanges were defined by mutual animosity and dialogue was hedged by such threats as turning Seoul into a "sea of fire." All lines of inter-Korean communication have now been severed, providing little hope of averting a conflict should hostilities spill over into open fighting.

One victim of the renewed hostilities could be the Kaesong Complex, a byproduct of the 2000 summit and a blueprint for inter-Korean cooperation which demonstrates that peace is money. If it becomes a scapegoat in the friction between Seoul and Pyongyang, its closure would lead to the loss of some 260,000 jobs in the South, the loss of $6 billion in sales and investments, and the disappearance of a psychological safety valve needed to curb the growing fear and anxiety.

August 15 marks Korea's National Liberation Day, when the Peninsula gained its freedom after nearly 40 years of Japanese colonial rule. The annual holiday is often marked by significant shifts in the South's policy directions and should now be used to open a renewed dialogue with the North.

A possible summit meeting between the nation's two leaders, something President Lee himself once hinted at, or allowing Lee Hee-ho, the wife of the late Kim Dae-jung, to visit the North after she received an invitation from Pyongyang, could go a long way in ameliorating the current tensions.

On the other hand, adhering to the ideologies that have guided Seoul's policies over the past two-and- a-half years, of refusing to engage the North in the belief that doing so will hasten its demise, will only result in a further deterioration of relations and more talk of war.

Under such an atmosphere, a return to the principles of the June 15 Declaration, reestablishing a belief in the search for a peaceful and diplomatic solution, holds out the only hope of resolving the current crisis. There is no other way.