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South Korea seeks a new way to handle North Korea

The sinking of a naval ship in March called into question the longtime 'Sunshine Policy.' But could dire health care problems and new UN talks help ease North Korea's isolated stance in time for six-party-talks?

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / July 16, 2010

South Korean Army soldiers walk by a signboard showing distances to North Korea's capital Pyongyang and that for South's capital Seoul at the Imjingang railway station in Paju, South Korea, Thursday. Military officers from North Korea and the American-led UN Command met Thursday for talks on the deadly sinking of the South Korean Cheonan warship that has been blamed on Pyongyang.

Ahn Young-joon/AP


Seoul, South Korea

The late South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung, borrowed from Aesop's fables when he initiated his "Sunshine Policy" of reconciliation with North Korea after his election in December 1997.

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"If we are to win in our fight against Communism," said Mr. Kim, "we will have to see the truth in Aesop's famous tale in which only the hot sun can take somebody's heavy coat off, not the blustery, wintry northern wind."

Koreans are considering those words in the cold light of one of the worst episodes since the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953. Nearly four months after a North Korean submarine fired a torpedo at the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan in Yellow Sea disputed waters, killing 46 sailors, the search is on for a new paradigm on North Korea. A door for communication might be opening. Just this week, as Amnesty International released a report on the poor state of health care in North Korea, North Korea accepted a UN proposal for leaders to meet face-to-face.

Remember the Sunshine Policy?

Many influential Koreans remember Sunshine as an enduring watchword. "I don't think it's the end of Sunshine," says Han Sung-joo, foreign minister in 1994 when the United States and North Korea signed an agreement for the North to give up its nuclear program in exchange for twin light-water nuclear energy reactors. "It is only the end as defined by Kim Dae-jung" and his successor, the late Roh Moo-hyun, president from 2003 to 2008.

In the quest for a new paradigm, the sense that the North cannot endure parallels the reality that it has defied predictions of economic failure and disaster for decades. "It is certainly hard to imagine the sudden melt-away of apparatus of the North Korean Workers' Party and its military," said Gong Ro-myung, a former foreign minister and chairman of the Sejong Foundation, which has close ties to the South's government. "There is no indication to suggest a massive ... uprising."

'Change can happen'

Change can happen, Mr. Gong said at a seminar, only if "the next leadership after Kim Jong-il," possibly his youngest son supported by a coterie of generals, "would seriously pursue reform and an open-door policy like China." And China would have to "mount real pressure so that the next leadership in North Korea has to adopt an economic open-door policy."

South Korean planners are full of ideas, most of them positing that North Korea will engage in serious economic restructuring, and that it will come to terms at six-party talks hosted by China on its nuclear program and open up to commercial, mail, Internet, and phone contact.

"We want ... relations, exchanges, and cooperation in a ... reciprocal way," says Mr. Han, who chairs the Asan Institute, a think tank for international conferences. "I don't think the Sunshine Policy has ended. Rather, it's a different framework."