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Koreans take dimmer view of 'Sunshine'

Policy of engagement comes under scrutiny as a poll finds that 65 percent of Koreans now support a nuclear program.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 13, 2006



SEOUL

On a sparkling morning in a villa high above the broad Han River in Seoul, Hyundai Automotive Vice Chairman Kim Dong Jin marvels over his company's new luxury utility vehicle – and weighs the possible impact of North Korea's nuclear blast on sales.

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"Do you notice any scare?" he asks. "Koreans are very calm. They regard this situation as they did past North Korean scare tactics."

Still, a society suffused by years of a "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the North is confronting diminished options for building ties with Kim Jong Il's isolated regime.

"Sunshine has got to be dead," says Lee Pil Ho, a mid-level manager. "It's not going to work. Many people think so. This is the result we get of giving a lot of oil, fertilizer, and cement to the North."

The rapid spread of such views – as well as Japanese and US encouragement of a tougher line in the wake of Mr. Kim's nuclear test – has convinced President Roh Moo-hyun to rethink his pursuit of reconciliation.

But even as public opinion tacks to the right – a poll by JoongAng Ilbo paper found that 65 percent of Koreans now want their own nuclear program – it is unlikely the government will dramatically shift its approach. Having first called for "stern measures," Mr. Roh later proposed "a strategic mix" of sanctions that would avoid provoking, if not another test, a severe response.

"The president felt compelled to express reservations about the usefulness of the policy of engagement, but I doubt this government's engagement policy will change in any significant way,", says Han Sung Joo, who served as foreign minister during the 1994 agreement under which North Korea agreed to stop developing nuclear warheads in return for nuclear-energy reactors.

Mr. Han sees little chance, for example, that the government will slam the door on a bankand companies operating factories in the special industrial zone at Kaesong, just inside North Korea.

Roh is due in Beijing Friday for what is likely to be the final and most portentous of three summits this week among Northeast Asian nations – the first between China's President Hu Jintao and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Beijing, and the second when Mr. Abe called on Roh hours after the blast.

The Chinese and South Korean presidents are likely to find common cause in a relatively soft approach toward the North. "[Seoul] is sandwiched by pro-reconciliation [forces] ... and the more conservative hard-liners from the US," says Paik Hak Sun of Seoul's Sejong Institute, a think tank with close government ties. Roh "is searching for a very fine balance between how to preserve the essential parts of the Sunshine Policy and how to accommodate necessary elements from the US side."

Mr. Paik says that "fighting between the two camps will become ever more visible," but says that "South Korea is probably in a position to accommodate some low-level sanctions," perhaps dealing with illegal financial transactions. But South Korea "is not in favor of such sanctions as Japan is doing."

What South Korea most wants to avoid is a military option. While Roh has warned against force, a defense official says that "it is natural we overhaul preparations for nuclear war," since "completely new things are happening."

Analysts place little credence in North Korea's denunciation of severe sanctions as "tantamount to a declaration of war," but worry that war might break out accidentally.

Naval vessels from the US and other countries, under the US-sponsored Proliferation Security Initiative, could begin interdicting North Korean ships on a regular basis in search of components of missiles or weapons of mass destruction.

Though outpowered in such a fracas, North Korea might react, says Han, by flexing its muscle elsewhere. "North Korea would feel a little more confident with nuclear weapons" as an option.

For now, some want the government to work more closely with the US.

"There are not many options," says Chang Ki Taek, who recalls as a small boy seeing North Korean troops in his hometown of Andong. "What we can do is cooperate with other countries, particularly the US."

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