[OUTLOOK]Sunshine can burn true believers

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[OUTLOOK]Sunshine can burn true believers

The conventional wisdom is all in favor of more engagement with North Korea, and President Kim Dae-jung continues doggedly to pursue his sunshine policy. Certainly, talk-talk is better than fight-fight. Certainly, the consequences of another "fight" between the two Koreas would be calamitous, no matter how quickly the North surrendered.

But advocates of the sunshine policy, both here and abroad, seem to have the idea that Pyeongyang can be coaxed into reshaping itself into a regime less repressive and less...well, weird. To try to make that case, they come up with some interesting arguments.

Donald Gregg is a former U.S. ambassador here and is still deeply involved in Korean affairs. Speaking at a recent peace forum in Jeju about the momentum for reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula, he said, "I can think of no better way to cut our influence in the region than for the United States to stand in the way of this process because of our concern over weapons of mass destruction." Come again?

Selig Harrison, perhaps the Westerner with the best access to Pyeongyang's leadership, wrote recently that we should focus on the North's denunciation of terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks and ignore the rest of its propaganda. He said the anti-everything propaganda that spews from the North is just the system running on automatic pilot, while statements like the anti-terror pledge showed the intervention of the leadership in the propaganda machine. That's very comforting; it means that anything we like is believable and anything we don't like can be dismissed.

Peter Beck, an official at the Seoul-funded Korea Economic Institute in Washington, D.C., discussed in a recent article for the Nautilus Institute the results of a March survey of U.S. North-Korea watchers about the sunshine policy. "A dramatic 86.1 percent" said they supported the policy; "an overwhelming 72.2 percent" disapproved of current U.S. policy, the article said.

But read a bit further: While praising sunshine for reducing tensions and setting the stage for the 2000 summit, many respondents said the policy has not brought about any change in the North's attitude toward Seoul and that little progress has been made in implementing cooperative agreements. And despite that strong support for the sunshine policy, less than 10 percent said the next Korean administration should continue it. Two-thirds called for "adjustments," and another 20 percent favored a policy of reciprocity. To sum up, they think the policy's biggest achievements have had no impact on North Korean behavior. Does sunshine begin to look like a faith-based initiative?

Are Koreans as believing in the policy as these American experts? Probably more so, but for a different reason. The New York Times recently quoted a student at an anti-American demonstration here as saying, "Bush is evil because he said North Korea is evil, but North Korea is not evil ?they are just like us."

That "just like us" sentiment in the South is understandable, even though it is probably the biggest barrier to any realistic dealings with the North. There is a rosy glow here in reporting on the North that hides the bleakness and daily terror of life there. Perhaps the most interesting part of my three-year-plus stay in the North was watching my South Korean colleagues watch the Northerners. One in particular arrived with great missionary zeal, but after a few months he could only shake his head in bewilderment and irritation. Another colleague, after a particularly egregious display of North Korean illogic, exploded, "I can't believe these people speak the same language I do!"

The abundant, unexploited labor resources in the North are also seen here as Korea's best hope for a new burst of economic growth (to finally overtake the Japanese, many would add). But problems crop up here, too. North Koreans are not stupid; the result of their socialist system, where the dear leader gives them food and housing and clothing -- limited as those goods may be -- is that the work ethic in the North is dead. It will take a generation or two under a more competitive economic system to make North Koreans worth more than the $60 a month or so that would be a fair market wage today.

If you believe that North Korea is really willing to modify its political system enough to accommodate contact with the outside world, engagement is obviously called for. But that belief is based more on hope than on observable facts. Those who would engage the North more just to get them over their current difficulties than to change them are espousing not a policy but a waffle, and the end result could be a hostile, destabilizing state with a bit more money to plow into weapons research and other mischief.


The writer is a deputy edtor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by John Hoog

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