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 , Correspondent

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    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.
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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.

"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.

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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."

He sees the change as one of degree.

"The relationship is not going to be as indulgent or as unconditional as before," says Han, conceding that North-South relations are "at a sort of a nadir." Nonetheless, "both sides are trying to keep the lid on rather than let it explode."

Still hope for a new Sunshine

Not all share such a roseate view. "The Cheonan incident shows Sunshine has failed," asserts Ryoo Kihl-jae, professor at the University of North Korean Studies. "The original goal was to change the North Korean system, but 10 years of Sunshine did not change North Korean policies." Still, he cites three realities that offer hope for Sunshine in a new framework.

"The first is the post-cold-war era has come," says Mr. Ryoo, meaning that North Korea has lost the economic support of the Soviet Union. "Second, there are big differences between North and South Korea's economic power and standing," internationally. And third, "We know very well North Korea is a failed regime especially after the mid-1990s."

Rather than talk about "engagement," says Ryoo, "the Sunshine Policy must be translated into an 'embracement' policy." He finds reason for optimism in the history of crises in which clashes did not occur after such tragedies as the Korean Air plane shot down over the Indian Ocean in 1987 or the killing of 17 South Koreans and four Burmese in Rangoon in 1983 by a bomb intended for Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, then South Korea's president.

Ryoo sees China as a stabilizing influence even though it is not likely to go along with demands for condemning North Korea for the Cheonan incident. "China is very embarrassed," he says.

In fact, many critics of President Lee do not support official rage over Cheonan. "Sunshine is not dead," says Paik Hak-soon, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute, "it is dormant." He sees the danger of a reversion to tactics employed before Korea's "democracy constitution in 1987," and predicts that "Sunshine will revive again" under Lee's successor.

China may be pivotal. "China's objective is the stability of the Korean Peninsula, the stability of North Korea, and denuclearization," he says. "All this is weakened by South Korea linking the Cheonan case to resumption of six-party talks."

Han sees Sunshine as bursting out again. "The North Koreans will come to the talks only under pressure and some compensation," he says. "China has to conduct its policy to maintain what modicum of influence it has over North Korea." In the end, "the nuclear issue will be resolved" – but "not this year."

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