[Viewpoint] Build upon Sunshine Policy achievementsOn July 6, 1994, when the Kim Young-sam administration was in office, Lee Myung-bak, then a newly elected National Assembly representative, raised questions for the administration at a plenary session.
“Although the job of verifying the transparency of North Korea’s nuclear program must be done first, economic cooperation between the South and the North must be carried out in the meantime as well. That means we should handle inter-Korean issues from an economic approach, rather than a political one.”
Lee suggested getting some 500 South Korean companies to enter North Korea. He said labor-oriented consumer goods produced by small and midsized companies, such as shoes and textiles, would be better than chemicals or heavy industries run by conglomerates.
Three days later, Kim Il Sung died. The first summit meeting between the South and the North since their separation was scheduled for July 25 to 27. Kim Young-sam and Kim Il Sung were supposed to meet in Pyongyang. When the North Korean leader passed away, the meeting was dropped. But our society was buoyant because of a warm atmosphere in inter-Korean relations. Lee’s suggestion seemed to be made amid this benign atmosphere. Nevertheless, his proposal was still unthinkable at that time.
Lee even calculated the assumed costs, saying “If existing equipment is used, we will have to invest around $1 billion.” He presented ideas about logistics, suggesting, “The railway and roads that connected the South and the North but were cut off during the Korean War must be restored so that raw materials and end products can be transported freely across the border.”
He presented various complementary measures, such as a fund to cover investment risks and revisions in laws and regulations. It showed that he had studied the idea quite thoroughly.
Then-Prime Minister Lee Yung-dug answered Lee’s questions bluntly. “Economic cooperation between the South and the North can be done only after North Korea’s nuclear program becomes transparent.”
Lee’s idea was shot down then, but it saw the light of day in the Kaesong Industrial Complex after the new administration took over. It was not called “MB’s suggestion” but “DJ’s policy,” ascribed to the new president, Kim Dae-jung. Lee’s idea was just ahead of its time.
When Lee ran for the presidency, he pledged to achieve the denuclearization of North Korea and open its doors. The pledge was appealing to voters because it reflected their affection for the Sunshine Policy of the past 10 years.
But Lee’s pledge is generally considered unfeasible as a North Korea policy. North Korea regards nuclear armament and isolation as its last resort for the survival and preservation of the North’s regime. If we want Pyongyang to give them up we need to bring them something equivalent.
The price is high. North Korea’s prime interest is rewards, but the South Korean administration has asked North Korea to abandon its nukes without any compensation. It is therefore not easy for North Korea to give up its nuclear program.
One wonders what the South Korea of today would give North Korea in return for denuclearization and open doors - the content of a cooperative proposal that the South Korean government is preparing. Because Lee presented a daring North Korea policy 15 years ago, expectations are that he must have in mind a measure as bold and practical this time too. It would be a good idea if the administration were to present it first.
Since North Korea test-fired a missile it has been asking for the impossible. Meanwhile, the South Korean administration shouts at it to abide by principles, while making no tangible response at all. Meanwhile, tension on the Korean Peninsula intensifies as time goes by.
It may have been inevitable that North Korea would try to tame the new South Korean government, but a cooling period afterward is also probable. We can use this time to reexamine the flaws of the Sunshine Policy. However, the problem is that we are approaching the end of the strategic cooling period. If worsened relations continue, the risks to national security increase and the confrontation deepens. If this happens, it is unlikely that Lee will be able to deliver on his other election pledges, such as reunions for separated families and the safe return of South Korean prisoners of war and abductees who remain in the North.
We must not waste four years this way. It is time to adjust the direction of our North Korea policy. Returning to Lee’s original practical view on North Korean issues is a good starting point. Being practical includes admitting that the last two summit meetings, though they took place under opposition presidents, had made positive achievements even if the Sunshine Policy had some flaws.
If we ignore its achievements altogether, we take a step back in our history. Instead we must build upon the achievements made thus far. It is timely that former President Kim Dae-jung is visiting China and asking Beijing to persuade Pyongyang. The incumbent administration must appreciate the former president’s efforts.
At the same time, the administration needs to be more flexible; the denuclearization of North Korea, and providing it with aid and cooperating with it can be handled at the same time without making either of them a condition for the other. They can be separated altogether. The administration ought to consider presenting plans for cooperation first and thereby inducing North Korea to give up its nuclear program.
The answers can be found in the suggestion that Lee had proposed loudly and confidently 15 years ago at the National Assembly.
*The writer is the chief of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Heo Nam-chin