Korea: Kim Dae-jung's funeral may spark North-South reconciliation

As tens of thousands gather in Seoul to mourn the death of the former president, his 'Sunshine policy' is breathing life into fresh North-South talks.

Ahn Young-joon/Reuters
Lee Hee-ho (3rd l.), widow of the late former President Kim Dae-jung, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (c.) and his wife Kim Yoon-ok (r.) pay tribute during his funeral in Seoul on Sunday.

The state funeral Sunday for Kim Dae-jung, the former South Korean president who initiated his country's "Sunshine policy" vis-a-vis North Korea, is opening a new chapter in the search for North-South reconciliation.

While tens of thousands of mourners flocked to the service in front of Seoul's domed National Assembly building, President Lee Myung-bak received a six-member delegation representing North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il, whom Kim Dae-jung met for the historic first North-South summit in Pyongyang in June 2000.

Kim Jong-il's message, however, was described by a spokesman for Mr. Lee as "oral," not written, and touched only on "progress of inter-Korean cooperation." That comment indicated that Kim Jong-il did not mention the nuclear and missile programs that led the United Nations Security Council after North Korea's May 25 nuclear test to invoke sanctions banning trade in critical items that North Korea badly needs.

"North Korea's peace gesture has nothing to do with its intention to give up nuclear weapons," says Kim Tae-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. "That is entirely separate."

North Korea signaling new openness toward the South

North Korea, in a downward economic spiral of severe food shortages and economic deterioration, has indicated its eagerness to ease up on access to the economic complex at Kaesong (across the North-South line 40 miles north of Seoul), reopen tours to the ancient city of Kaesong, resume reunions of families divided by the Korean War, and possibly come to terms on resuming tours to Mount Kumkang.

Kim Jong-il, believed to have suffered a stroke a year ago and to be building up his youngest son as a possible successor, has made Kim Dae-jung's Aug. 18 death the basis for the latest in a series of moves toward easing rising tensions.

Kim Jong-il immediately sent a condolence message to Kim Dae-jung's widow, Lee Hee-ho, who was at her husband's bedside when he died. Kim Ki-nam, a secretary of the North's ruling Workers' Party, leading the delegation to Seoul, said he was "leaving with good feelings" after calling on Lee for half an hour at the Blue House, the center of power in South Korea.

A Blue House spokesman refrained, however, from revealing the exact contents of the message from the North Korean to the South Korean leader in view of what he said was its "sensitivity." There was even speculation that Kim Jong-il may have invited Lee for a summit in Pyongyang similar to the June 2000 summit and the summit in October 2007 with Kim Dae-jung's successor, Roh Moo-hyun.

A sign of desperation?

In practical terms, however, the olive branch extended by Kim Jong-il to Lee, previously reviled in North Korean rhetoric as a "traitor" and "lackey" of the United States for his conservative policy toward the North, seems most likely to reflect the country's economic desperation.

"The most important thing for North Korea now is life, food," says Choi Jin-wook, senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

Mr. Choi believes Lee may resume humanitarian aid to North Korea, in the form of food and fertilizer, after North Korea resumes reunions of families divided by the Korean War. Kim Dae-jung and Mr. Roh, during their five-year terms, authorized the shipment of several hundred thousand tons a year, but Lee outraged North Korea by insisting it abandon its nuclear program.

About 16,000 family members, among hundreds of thousands still alive more than 50 years after the war ended, have seen each other in brief reunions since the June 2000 summit, but there have been no reunions for more than two years.

'Sunshine' legacy lives on

The death of Kim Dae-jung – who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts to promote reconciliation on the Korean peninsula – has aroused a tremendous outpouring of emotions for carrying on his Sunshine policy. While thousands attended his funeral, about 700,000 visited memorials for him around the country, and almost all the South's 48 million people watched all or part of the service as carried live on four national television networks.

The makeup of the US delegation to the funeral also indicated Washington's support for his policies. Madeleine Albright, who visited Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in October 2000 as secretary of state for President Bill Clinton, led the delegation, which also included her deputy, Wendy Sherman, who accompanied her to Pyongyang, and Stephen Bosworth, who was ambassador to South Korea during Kim Dae-jung's presidency and now is US envoy on North Korea.

Signs of a thaw?

Mr. Clinton's 20-hour visit to Pyongyang earlier this month to bring home two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee of Al Gore's Current TV network, who had been held in North Korea for 140 days, marked the first sign of a thaw in North Korea's confrontational attitude. The White House said Clinton's trip was "unofficial," but he met for more than three hours with Kim Jong-il and briefed President Obama last week on what they discussed.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, has said that US policy remains unchanged and North Korea must first return to six-party talks, which North Korea has said it will never do. Lee also has said there is no change in his "firm" policy toward the North.

"They already rejected six-party talks," says Choi, "but they are ready for talks with South Korea and the US." Whenever the parties talk, he says, "the nuclear issue should be on the table."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.