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    « 'Five Past Midnight In Bhopal': By Dominique Lapierre & Javiar Moro | Main | New US Govt Report: Taxpayers Wasting $370 Million On Federal Courts' Security? »

    The Korean Peninsula: Aftermath Of The 'Sunshine Policy'

    Image Source:WikiCommons

    North Korea has now blamed South Korea and the US for it's attack earlier this week on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in the Yellow Sea. It accuses South Korea of initiating the artillery clash. Pyongyang's rationale behind blaming Washington for Tuesday's attack is a bit more circuitous and dates back to incidents that took place several decades ago. Explaining this allegation mandates at least a brief segue into the Korean Peninsula's history, which is much needed to understand the background of the Sunshine Policy anyway. 

    Japan ruled over the Korean Peninsula from 1910 till the end of WW II. When Japan surrendered in 1945, the Korean Peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel (latitude-38 degrees north of equator) into North and South, with the US occupying the southern region eight days after the Soviet Union occupied the northern region. In 1948, UN sponsored elections took place in South Korea and later in the same year both countries were officially established. Under the influence of the Soviet Union, North Korea became a Communist state.

    Over the next few years tensions between the two sides escalated, despite several (failed) attempts at reunification. In June 1950, the North Koreans invaded South Korea, resulting in open warfare. The UN and the US backed the South Koreans in the Korean War, while the Soviet Union and China supported the North. The Korean War armistice came about three years later in July 1953, thus ending active combat but without an official peace treaty.

    A new Military Demarcation Line (aka Armistice Line) now separated the two Korean states, on either side of which is the Korean Demilitarized Zone. The line of territorial demarcation between the North and the South in the Yellow Sea is called the Northern Limit Line (NLL). This line, established in 1953 was accepted and recognized by South Korea but North Korea has questioned the validity of the NLL and has violated it repeatedly. North Korea has long blamed the UN and the US for drawing the NLL and that is the reason why they are blaming the US for this Tuesday's attacks. In a statement issued today, the North Korean regime refers to the NLL drawn in 1953 and says: "The U.S., therefore, cannot evade the blame for the recent shelling. It was none other than the U.S. which sparked off the conflict in the above-said waters."

    Former Presidents Clinton with Kim Dae-jung in 1999, Image Source:WikiCommons

    Fast forward a few decades from 1953 - after several more disputes and skirmishes between the North and the South Koreans - to 1998 and we enter the era of the famous South Korean 'Sunshine Policy'. Then South Korean President, Kim Dae-jung spearheaded the new policy towards the North Korean regime, one intended to thaw relations between the two states, encourage the North to work co-operatively with the South and the rest of the world, thus ending it's isolation. He called this policy 'Sunshine Policy', referring to one of Aesop's fables ('The North Wind and the Sun'), underlying message of which was essentially that you can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.

    With this policy, Kim Dae-jung's administration started engaging with the North in trade agreements and humanitarian aid to the North. The severe sanctions placed on North Korea by most of the rest of the world (except PRC and Russia) due to it's nuclear program, combined with erratic and poor governance by it's (deranged) dictator Kim Jong-il has resulted in severe humanitarian crisis inside the country. The level of poverty, widespread human rights abuses and lack of most basic necessities for millions of it's residents are alarming. Over the years, South Korea has helped North Korea to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid.

    The Sunshine Policy earned Kim Dae-jung the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. Other than that, the legacy of the Sunshine Policy is lackluster. By softening it's stand towards North Korea, and engaging with them, the South Korean leadership had hoped to reduce and eventually end the North's hostility. To that effect, the policy can be declared an abject failure.

    Seoul's gestures of goodwill have never been reciprocated by Pyongyang in a consistent and reliable manner. But then the North Korean regime hardly ever does anything constructive in a consistent and reliable manner. This is precisely why the Sunshine Policy, despite it's good intentions in theory never really stood a chance of being successful in reality.

    When you're dealing with a mentally unstable, irrational leader like Kim Jong-il, such over simplistic, almost naïve logic that if you're good to him, he will be good to you too, has little chance of success. Logic - naïve or otherwise - in general only works with logical people. Logic has no impact on illogical people and situations. It took the South Koreans (surprisingly) a few years to reach such an obvious conclusion. 

    Kim Dae-jung's successor, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun continued the Sunshine Policy. He continued to engage with the North in bilateral trade deals, and spent another few hundred million in humanitarian aid to Pyongyang. In October of 2007, while heading to Pyongyang for a peace summit, Roh traveled by road and crossed the demarcation line by foot to symbolically signal unification and peace on the Korean Peninsula. Such theatrics which helped (momentarily) with the administration's domestic popularity at the time, did little to actually bring peace to the region in the long run. 

    The Sunshine Policy not only didn't bring the kind of peace and unification that it had promised but it has been argued that it had detrimental effects on South Korea's international relations and thus compromised it's national interests. When the US and it's allies, along with the UN were imposing sanctions on North Korea over it's nuclear program, the South Korean administrations were busy forging new bonds with Pyongyang. When the UN holds votes condemning North Korea's atrocious record on human rights, the South Koreans either abstain from voting or just don't show up at all for voting. Due to their fear of evoking the North's wrath and risking to derail the Sunshine Policy, they have publicly maintained disturbing silence on numerous occasions when the world rightfully condemned the North on it's unchecked nuclear ambitions and human rights abuses. 

    Pres Lee Myung-bak, Image Source:WikiIt was when the current South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008, that South Korea seemed to finally wake up and smell the gun powder. The Sunshine Policy was by then mostly abandoned in favor of a more realistic stand towards it's neighbor. Now economic co-operation was contingent upon North Korea's compliance with the international community regarding nuclear proliferation. Part of the reason South Koreans perhaps held on to the fantasy of the Sunshine Policy as long as they did was because they never truly believed that North Korea would actually use the nuclear weapons against them. North Korea's nuclear tests in recent years seem to have finally driven the point home to Seoul.

    An article by Jungmin Kang published last June in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists points out: "When North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, the former South Korean government, headed by President Roh Moo-hyun, was shocked because it had insisted on a denuclearized North Korea. Nonetheless, the Roh administration continued its policy of engagement with the North without interruption. President Roh even said that North Korea's development of nuclear weapons was for defensive, not offensive, purposes. 

    Because of the post-1998 "Sunshine policy" of the previous South Korean government, many South Korean nongovernmental organizations and the public weren't concerned about North Korea's threats, believing that Pyongyang would never use nuclear weapons against them. But just a day after Pyongyang's second nuclear test, current South Korean President Lee Myung-bak announced that Seoul would fully participate in the PSI [Proliferation Security Initiative]. (South Korea had been participating in the PSI only as an observer since 2005.)" 

    BBC News' Chris Hogg reports that the South Korean officials described this Tuesday's attack on their island by North Korea, as "surprising and shocking". One of the officials reportedly told Hogg that, "We couldn't have imagined they would carry out this kind of grave provocation". The 'shock' explains the military response by South Korea, which was criticized within the country as muted and less than adequate, and has resulted in the resignation of the South Korean Defense Minister. 

    South Korea has now announced a much stronger military presence in the Yellow Sea and a revision of it's policies towards North Korea. President Lee Myung-bak's spokesperson is quoted by The Korea Herald today as saying, "As our existing rules of engagement have been assessed as rather passive, focusing on preventing the escalation of a conflict, the government has decided to make new rules of engagement to change the paradigm itself of responding to North Korea's provocation". 

    Peace is indisputably a worthy goal, but it needs to be tempered with a realistic assessment of potential threats to a nation's sovereignty. Hoping for the best works only when your hopes are backed up with preparedness for the worst. Only in an utopian world, would an Aesop's fable translate into successful foreign policy and result in peaceful cohabitation with one's enemies. 

    ~ Gauri 

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