On the eve of the fifth anniversary of Kim Dae-jung’s death, a collective frustration is building over policy toward North Korea. Both the Park Geun-hye and Barack Obama administrations are being accused of inaction in their dealings with the communist regime, and there are mounting calls for more engagement.
Ahead of Monday’s anniversary, analysts met at the Kim Dae-jung presidential library to discuss the legacy of the Nobel Prize-winning former president and his Sunshine Policy. However, current policy toward North Korea was also a hotly discussed topic, with many believing the policy of the last two administrations has soured relations between the two Koreas and endangered security on the peninsula.
Moon Chung-in, one of the chief architects of the Sunshine Policy, said that Park Geun-hye spoke of rapprochement and improved ties in a similar way as Kim Dae-jung, but had yet to implement effective strategy.
“The Park Geun-hye government hasn’t come up with any specific actions and measures to prove that her policy would be successful, therefore it is yet to be seen,” Moon said.
President Park promised to increase people-to-people contacts and cultural exchanges with the North as part of her Trust Politik policy. However the government has so far been reluctant to discuss dropping the May 24th sanctions and restarting South Korean visits to the Mount Kumgang resort, and her administration has been accused of holding up negotiations over North Korea’s participation in next month’s Asian Games in Incheon and preventing civic groups sending fertilizer aid.
American analysts are also criticizing the South Korean and U.S. approaches. Robert Gallucci, the chief negotiator of the 1994 Agreed Framework with Pyongyang, encourages more engagement.
“The North Korean issue, shorthanded, doesn’t get better like fine wine, (with) the passage of time,” he told one of South Korea’s state media Yonhap News Agency this week. “The North Koreans … do not want to be ignored and when they think they’re ignored, they will do something to get your attention in the South or our attention. We shouldn’t try to deal with the North Korean case by ignoring it,” he added.
The Obama administration continues a policy of strategic patience which seeks to isolate North Korea, not respond to its threats with diplomatic reward, and wait for Pyongyang to be forced into giving up its nuclear program. The North has severely tested the patience of Washington on various occasions, particularly last spring, resulting in United Nations sanctions aimed at the North’s top leadership and their sources of funding.
However this strategy faces fierce criticism. At a recent House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing the Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies was confronted with stiff questioning.
“What is the time frame of this? Are we looking at a thousand years? Is it my lifetime?” Congressman Scott Perry asked. “Convincing North Korean leadership that this isn’t their pathway to the future, who are we kidding?” He added. The fiery one hour back and forth highlights the feeling from both the left and the right that current policy should be more proactive.
The expert panel gathered at the Kim Dae-jung library noted that a return to increased engagement is unlikely while the voice of the right remains strong in South Korea. Conservatives argue policies adopted in the past favoring engagement fostered human rights abuses by the communist regime and provided a respite from sanctions which allowed them to continue to pursue nuclear weapons programs.
Moon however asserts Kim’s policy promoted an environment of peace on the peninsula.
“I would argue that the people support the Sunshine Policy because the Sunshine Policy is all about how to reconcile with North Korea and how to engage with North Korea and how to enhance cooperation and exchange with North Korea,” Moon said. “Even a conservative government would not refuse that kind of policy, therefore I would say that the Sunshine Policy is a kind of universal policy in that sense.”
The panel also reflected on Kim’s legacy and achievements in fighting for democracy in the country. His struggle against the military regimes of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, during which he survived an assassination attempt and had a death penalty commuted to life in prison, have been recognized worldwide. Amnesty International called him a hero and an inspiration for his commitment to human rights throughout his life. He is also credited with steering the country through the recovery from the 1997 financial crisis, although his family became embroiled in scandal that ultimately hindered his economic reforms. While the success of his presidency may continue to be debated, his contribution to South Korea’s transition to democracy stand unquestioned.