South Korea's new president seeks to revive sunshine policy for better ties, but will North oblige?

After nearly a decade in the political wilderness, the progressive or 'liberal' Democratic Party has returned to power in the Republic of Korea, better known as South Korea. With around 43 percent of votes, its candidate Moon Jae-in won the presidential elections held on Tuesday, defeating three centrist-to-conservative contenders. The division of opposition votes helped him win what was exactly a by-election, caused due to the unprecedented impeachment of the former conservative president Park Geun-hye in March after a series of political and corruption scandals.

New South Korean President Moon Jae-in. AP

New South Korean President Moon Jae-in. AP

Moon's victory is of global significance because one of his principal electoral promises has been to negate the emerging consensus among the major global powers, including India, not only on the nature of the regime in the Democratic Republic of North Korea, better known as North Korea but also on the danger its dictator Kim Jong-un poses for the global peace and stability. Kim has threatened to fire nuclear-tipped missiles on the United States and has detained an American citizen as human shield amid fears of a US attack targeting his nuclear and missile programmes as part of a new form of "hostage diplomacy".

Incidentally, 64-year-old Moon is the son of a North Korean refugee. He has promised to pursue a friendlier course towards North Korea than his immediate predecessors did. He has said that he would love to travel to Pyongyang to meet dictator Kim and reopen the Kaesong joint industrial park where South Korean companies employ North Korean labourers to build products. Moon has argued that South Korea’s principal ally the United States’ policy on sanctions and pressure on North Korea are ineffective and that he will call for a review of the Pentagon’s deployment of an anti-missile defence system in South Korea (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence or THAD), a deployment that has drawn objections from China too. He repeatedly pledged during his campaign that South Korea would have an independent voice in the international community. No wonder why North Korea had indicated that Moon was its favoured candidate, with state media urging the South Korean voters to "punish the puppet group of conservatives."

In short, Moon favours engagement and greater dialogue with North Korea. He, in fact, wants to revive "the sunshine policy" that Kim Dae-jung, one of his Democratic party predecessors, had enunciated on his inauguration as president in February 1998. This policy has three basic principles and basic tasks. The principles are: "First, no armed provocation by North Korea will be tolerated under any circumstances; second, we will not undermine North Korea or unify the country by absorbing it; and third, we will pursue across-the-board exchanges and cooperation with North."

The five tasks are: implementing the 1991 "Basic Agreement in reconciliation, non-aggression and exchanges and cooperation between the South and the North"; desirability of the United States and Japan improving and normalising relations with North Korea; all nations in the world, including the four countries (the US, Japan, Russia and China) whose interests intersect on the Korean peninsula, should interact with North Korea so as to make it a responsible member of the international community; eliminating weapons of mass destruction from the Korean peninsula; and changing the Armistice Agreement of 1953 that brought the Korean War to a halt(not an end) into a peace regime.

Korean scholar Lee Hun-kyung assesses the sunshine policy based on Abraham Maslow's "motivational theory", which is premised on the fact that in general, all human beings tend to satisfy needs such as food and shelter that are essential to their survival. When such fundamental needs are met, people then try to pursue other desires. In other words, human beings have the basic instinct to first ensure survival, then security, followed by affiliation, self-esteem and finally self-realisation.

Applied to North Korea’s case, the sunshine policy could be seen in the context of the fact that the communist nation depends for the very survival of its people on the global food aid on which there are now many sanctions; it is only China which provides substantial food aid to North Korea. Already short on food — 40 percent of North Korea’s population is undernourished and depends on food rations — chaos broke out recently in six major cities, with more than 400 people killed in food riots. Reportedly, in an army base near the Chinese border, a group of 700 rioting North Koreans stormed the food pantries, killing 60 soldiers in the process and taking some of their weapons.

Another aspect of the sunshine policy is that its targets are North Korean people, not their totalitarian leader Kim as such. As South Korea’s president, Moon will adopt a strategy to ensure the survival of the North Korean people. The policy, thus, is supposed to promote an approach of brotherly love and humanitarian compassion. In short, the policy is that of engagement, not confrontation; it is based on the concepts of gradualism and separation of economics and humanitarian issues from politics. In the long term, the policy, it is assumed, will encourage North Koreans, including their leader, to reform and open up to outside influences and create economic ties with the outside world in general and South Korea in particular.

However, the fact remains that the sunshine policy pursued by the previous Democratic party-led government in South Korea did not meet with any lasting success. It failed precisely because the North Korean regime went back on its promise of not escalating tensions – it, instead, went for the proliferation of nuclear and missiles (it has conducted five nuclear tests and refused to re-accede to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), leading to various international sanctions. Besides, unlike the situation in the late 1990s when countries like the United States (under president Bill Clinton), Japan and China blessed the sunshine policy, this time all the three countries, including even China, are not sanguine about the intentions of Kim Jong-un. China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner and the main source of food and energy, has always sustained the North Korean regime; but, Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear test and ongoing missile launches have complicated the ties with Beijing.

As already argued in this platform, North Korea, like Pakistan, excels in blackmailing the rest of the world; it demonstrates its nuclear and missile prowess with a conviction that the rest of the world, nervous with its destructive capabilities, will accede to its security and economic assistance. One doubts whether President’s Moon’s revival of the sunshine policy will mellow Kim Jong-un.

Besides, Pyongyang suspects that efforts by South Korea to reach North Korean people, if taken to the logical conclusion, could create conditions conducive for the eventual unification of the country(to which both the North and South are committed) as a democratic nation, and thus be detrimental to the survival of the communist regime. Pyongyang fears that the flow of external information into the North could fuel a ‘notion of openness’ among the North Korean people, resulting in social instability.

This being the case, it is difficult to believe that Kim Jong-un will respond to new South Korean President’s desire for government-level talks. Kim’s happiness over Moon’s victory is limited mainly on the civilian-level economic cooperation (reopening of the Kaesong joint industrial complex, for instance) as a way to make money (resources) for developing more weapons of mass destruction.


Published Date: May 10, 2017 10:42 pm | Updated Date: May 10, 2017 10:52 pm


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