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How S. Korea's view of the North flipped

'Sunshine' policy has profoundly changed public opinion of onetime enemy - and US

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 22, 2003


When US officials helped shut down North Korea's nuclear plant 10 years ago, there was no question here about what the North was. Or, for that matter, what the South was.

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The North was the enemy. It had invaded the South to start the Korean War. It was a hostile, communist state. The South, by contrast, was free - an emerging democracy in the global order.

Yet today, the South's prevailing view of the North has flip-flopped - and it is proving a difficult factor for the Bush White House in dealing with the current crisis.

South Koreans have lived through the five-year Sunshine Policy, one of whose central tenets is that North Korea not be thought of as a "communist enemy." The vested view in Seoul, nurtured by outgoing President Kim Dae Jung and adhered to by president-elect Roh Moo-hyun, is that the North is changing, and that to help the process, South Koreans must regard the North and its people as "our brothers ... part of one Korea," as a research scholar in Seoul puts it.

To emphasize the building of trust, the Kim government in the South has invested heavily in the North. It has also kept negative news and a steady series of embarrassing brushoffs by the North out of the South Korean media - a policy that continues.

"For five years now, the KDJ government has successfully changed public opinion toward North Korea and the US," says Kim Tae-hyo, a professor at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul. "The North is no longer regarded as an enemy. The North's nuclear program, the West Sea incident [where the North killed sailors], missile tests, the kidnapping of hundreds of South Koreans - it doesn't matter to ordinary people anymore. At the same time, you hear the US blamed more often."

Discredited, but still in play

The North's behavior has discredited the Sunshine Policy in a number of influential circles, both in South Korea and abroad. Yet it is the policy the South is vigorously urging the international community, and the Bush White House, to adopt.

The White House has been more skeptical, although the Bush team has affirmed the need to engage the North in some fashion.

As President-elect Roh told US media last week, "People's attitude change according to your own attitude.... Many Koreans believe that once the United States adopts a policy of dialogue, that will solve the problem."

When it first appeared in 1998, Kim's Sunshine policy was a noble and generous new assessment of the peninsula - a bold reaching out to the North. It created, however briefly, an atmosphere of post-cold war warming.

In the late 1990s, the Koreas, like other long-divided states, appeared to be moving in the direction of a historic rapprochement. The North was in tatters after floods and mass starvation. It had lost its status as a client of Russia and China, though the latter continued aid. Kim Jong Il of the North, and Kim Dae Jung, met in June 2000 in Pyongyang, attended by a rolling wave of familial emotion on both sides that garnered Kim Dae Jung a Nobel Peace Prize.

Rather than focus on the North's poor human-rights record, and its military posture, the South accentuated the positive. Backed by the Clinton administration, it opened dozens of new channels of interaction, and helped the North win diplomatic recognition from a range of states including Italy, the Philippines, Canada, and Australia. In South Korea, the divisions of North and South were blamed on the abstract evils of "history."

The North's role in attacking the South nearly disappeared from the rhetoric; rather, Korea's status as a victim of "great power" negligence following World War II was emphasized.

The spirit of the Sunshine sensibility is captured by a young Korean scholar at a major research institute in a recent interview: "Kim changed everything. We used to regard the North as evil or an enemy. We didn't communicate with them," the scholar says. "But now we include them as part of us. We no longer think of them as evil. They are our brothers. We don't think of them as evil; we think of them as people with problems. We want to help deal with their problems, which are really our problems, since we are one people."