The Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance Arirang, also known as the Arirang Mass Games, a gymnastics and artistic festival held in the Rungrado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea
Amidst reports of his odd hairstyle and plucked eyebrows, Kim Jong-un continues business as usual in North Korea. In the past week, media outlets reported on live-fire artillery drills, state-sponsored slavery, and purges in the politburo.
In this way, Kim maintains the West’s expectations of the hermit kingdom, projecting a suitably grim portrait of Stalinism in the 21st century. He has become an object of parody — a man in his third year of power over 24 million people; a man in possession of a growing number of nuclear weapons.
When crafting foreign policy for such a country, experience dictates that one should tread lightly. No country knows this better than South Korea.
Ain’t No Sunshine
With an eye towards peace or even full-scale reunification, South Korea reformed its austere, Cold War-era foreign policy in 1998. These reforms, collectively designated as the Sunshine Policy, dictated North-South relations for a decade to come. The newly-elected President Kim Dae-jung hoped to topple the North Korean regime through kindness.
At its core, the Sunshine Policy operated under two principles. The first was a separation of economic issues from political matters, designed to spur the liberalization of the failing North Korean economy. The second called for mutual reciprocity, a condition necessary for meaningful dialogue and potential reunification.
In practice, the first rule allowed for an increase in private South Korean investment in North Korea, limiting the government’s influence. The architects of the policy reasoned that recent famines in North Korea had crippled the regime to a breaking point – with only a few nudges required to push the nation into capitalist reforms.
This proved overly optimistic, however. Cash transfers and investments into North Korea had few strings attached, and North Korea exploited this lack of oversight. Ultimately, little of the South Korean support actually stimulated the economy nor provided humanitarian relief. Instead, these unregulated transfers went into bolstering North Korea’s predominantly military agenda, not the least of which included obtaining a fully operational nuclear arms program.
In 2002, North Korea rescinded its 1994 freeze on nuclear development. Now, it is one of only nine countries with nuclear capabilities. Recent reports predict that North Korea’s total nuclear arms will exceed 100 by the year 2020.
Unfortunately, the second principle fared no better in guiding South Korean diplomats. In just two months, it became apparent that mutual cooperation was not on the North’s agenda.
If followed to the letter, the Sunshine Policy would have been dismantled right then, but instead, the Kim administration announced an amended strategy for “flexible reciprocity.” By Confucian principle, it was the duty of an older brother to make sacrifices for his younger, less mature sibling. True to form, South Korea received little in return for its liberal care packages. To present a veneer of progress, however, Kim Jong-il agreed to a summit in 2000.
The landmark summit marked the first time since the peninsular division that the leaders of the two countries met in person. Kim Jong-il and Kim Dae-jung embraced, signing a joint-declaration for cooperation, future reunification, and resolution on humanitarian issues. President Kim Dae-jung was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and rosy relations appeared to continue as a second summit was held in 2007.
Within the next year, however, the Sunshine Policy was put to an end. Over the course of a decade, it became evident that these summits were little consolation for the policy as a whole.
It was with great regret that the Kim administration admitted to secretly facilitating the transfer of large financial support to North Korea preceding the summit. Although it denied using government funds, justifying the unregulated transfers in the name of “peace on the peninsula,” an investigation in 2003 found that as much as $100 million in government funds had been used. A further $400 million was invested by Hyundai, although legitimately, under the loosened economic policies of the time.
These naïve attempts at kindness have done little to establish respectful dialogue between the two nations. North Korea clings to the precedents of this period and, according to former president Lee Myung-bak, sought inter-summit talks on several occasions between 2008 to 2013. Preconditions, however, ranged anywhere from 500,000 tons of rice to $10 billion in cold hard cash.
Lee’s presidency marked the return of a harsher attitude towards North Korea. Simple agreements to “talk” were not to be awarded, and North Korea’s expectations of appeasement were not to be met. These policies remain in place under President Park Geun-hye, who has publicly espoused “trustpolitik” — a policy premised upon the need for mutual cooperation between North and South. If this component is discarded for political expediency, then today’s foreign policy will go the way of its “Sunshine” predecessors.
Andy Kim is a senior in the School of Industrial & Labor Relations at Cornell University, minoring in English and Creative Writing.
Image Attribution: “North Korea – Arirang” by North Korea – Arirang, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0