South Korea Should Study Its Past to Deal with North’s Future

South Korea should emulate the successes and avoid the failures of previous policies toward North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and South Korean president Kim Dae-jung shake hands at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, June 15, 2000
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and South Korean president Kim Dae-jung shake hands at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, June 15, 2000 (AFP)

North Korea is known for its exaggerated and bellicose proclamations against South Korea. Recently, it declared that strikes “without warning” would occur if protests in Seoul marking the anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il continued. But the recent execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Sung-taek, demonstrates a far deeper issue that North Korea wants contained: the internal desire for reform or revolution. If South Korea reflects on its previously successful and not so successful engagements with North Korea and learns from them, it is possible for a reunification or positive reform to eventually occur without war or destruction.

Despite losing many of its allies and supporters following the Cold War, North Korea has persisted in rebelling against international etiquette and refuses to collapse. South Korea is experienced in the rogue state’s belligerent attitude and has actively spent the last fifteen years dedicating policy experts and analysts to the task of avoiding war and establishing a peacefully feasible reunification. Some have been historically progressive whereas others have led to armed confrontation. These precedential dealings are the best platform to successfully move forward regarding a rogue state that cannot be understood through standard rational analysis.

Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy” departed from previous policy regimes and in 1998 commenced a different style of engagement with the North. Implemented after a destructive North Korean famine, the South Korean president advocated a neoliberal approach and pushed for an economic relationship to achieve a deeper and more peaceful engagement between the two Korean states.

The collapse of the Soviet Union had caused North Korea to spend eight years without a financial benefactor. By insisting on zero tolerance toward provocation as well as the promise to actively seek cooperation and not forcibly absolve the North, the Sunshine Policy provided a strong, compromised and hospitable source of desperately needed economic support. However, the condition for North Korea to actively pursue denuclearization was no longer attached to these economic incentives and this was a monumental step forward for inter-Korean relations.

The Sunshine Policy led to the creation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region. While the latter was shortly closed down, the former is the site of $1.6 billion of inter-Korean trade — 98 percent of total Inter-Korean trade.

By providing significant hard currency to North Korea’s dilapidating economy, Kim Dae-jung was not only resurrecting diplomatic and political ties but also contributing to the financial and infrastructural development that would ease a very tedious reunification process. This seemed possible during his tenure and the tenure of his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, both being happy to slowly but surely implement the policy’s principles.

There were setbacks throughout the Sunshine Policy but none were more hindering than President George W. Bush’s categorization of North Korea within an “axis of evil” as well as the Yeonpyeong Islands dispute in 2002 when both states incurred casualties. North Korea swiftly reacted to these events by shutting down talks with the South.

South Korea recognized that the North maintains a traditional and archaic form of diplomacy where it detests insults and is receptive to gestures of respect and leveraged this to garner friendlier relations. Examples of this can be seen with the insistence of Kim Dae-jung to hold a 2000 summit between the leaders of both countries or when Roh Moo-hyun physically crossed the Military Demarcation Line by foot to symbolize a deepening friendship.

Unfortunately, Lee Myung-bak did not see eye to eye with his predecessors and took on a very different style of engagement with North Korea. The Sunshine Policy was scrapped for his “Vision 3000.” Lee was determined to raise North Korean income per capita from $500 to $3000. Vision 3000, however, came with the revived condition of denuclearization. South Korea learned the hard way through the new president’s more stick and less carrot approach that sudden changes and rhetorical rivalry are not ingredients in the recipe for peace.

The 2009 joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States were received unfavorably by North Korea. In an act of defiance, the latter shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex for several months. Decisions like these demonstrated the irrational policymaking of North Korea where a sacrifice of desperately needed hard currency could be made to emphasize a political statement. It was not the first nor the last time an American presence instigated a standoff on the peninsula, with the 2013 Kaesong shutdown also accredited to the combination of an adamant new opposition leader and a resurfacing American assertiveness.


Lee Myung-bak’s tenure demonstrated Kim Jong-il’s and Kim Jong-un’s unwavering emphasis on the power of words and image. North Korea’s conciliatory capacity was best exemplified by the presence of a North Korean delegation at Kim Dae-jung’s funeral, an incredible gesture from a state so isolated and aggressive. This was during the same period that Lee Myung-bak’s character assassination was in full effect with North Korean state media describing him as a rat.

These tensions simmered until the Yeonpyeong dispute surfaced again but this time with the direct shelling of the island and the sinking of a South Korean navy ship. Lee’s administration responded by cutting off almost all of the humanitarian aid that had been slowly accumulating since the Sunshine Policy was initiated. Foresight did restrain him from shutting down the Kaesong Industrial Complex, likely aware of both the cooperative and economic influence it had over North Korea and the fact that the latter had previously used its shutdown as a statement of contempt. As much as the Sunshine Policy may have reduced or prevented denuclearization, the benefits of an economic relationship in more effectively engaging North Korea were obvious and relatively sustained by President Lee.

Incumbent president Park Geun-hye’s “trustpolitik” policy has once again detached conditional denuclearization from economic cooperation as well as acting upon the North’s rhetorical diplomacy, coining the policy “trust” in an attempt to share and appreciate Korean values. But recent events should not be acted upon without considering past successes and failures.

Patience was a timely but ultimately beneficial characteristic of the Sunshine Policy, allowing an application over two presidential terms in order to have full effect. The Kaesong Industrial Complex, as mentioned, constitutes almost all of inter-Korean trade but to assume that North Korea will sanctify this arrangement above international disrespect was proven wrong when it shut down the complex earlier this year. A similar example of impatience was demonstrated by the Vision 3000 approach in which the insistence on denuclearization prevented a more comprehensive economic relationship from emerging.

The United States’ presence has been a consistent trigger of North Korean anxiety and, although South Korea will not sacrifice the military relationship, it must continue to structure North Korean engagement with as much patience and as little American involvement as possible. Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun demonstrated this and if Park Guen-hye continues to express a similar sentiment (which she has begun to do), a more peaceful and less reactive North Korea can be dealt with.

The personality and discursive style of Kim Dae-jung is unlikely to be replicated but Roh Moo-hyun saw the impact of respect and personal fondness on North Korea’s elite and successfully emulated this to continue cooperative relations. Despite its contrast, President Lee was justified in his direct responses to North Korean aggression but President Park can learn from her predecessor that the timing and delivery of her reactions will directly influence future North Korean sentiment.

North Korea has expressed both formal and informal hints toward economic change with some seeking a prolonged survival and others, such as Jang Sung-taek, seeking a revolution. If former basketball player Dennis Rodman can be invited back to Pyongyang based on his personal relationship with Kim Jong-un, there still remain opportunities to build conduits for North Korean engagement.

South Korea has a belligerent neighbor that is demonstrating signs of economic and moral dilapidation. By understanding the application of previous policies, there is an economic vulnerability that can be exploited with conditional provisions.

Firstly, be patient, as reform, revolution, or unification will not be quickly achieved.

Secondly, try to distance the United States from the North’s peripheral vision for as long or as best as possible.

Thirdly, do not attach a denuclearization requirement on economic cooperation.

Fourthly, avoid when necessary acts or words that could be interpreted as insults or disrespect.

And finally, peace is best accomplished through gestures of cooperation rather than confrontation.

Collectively, these will not only produce a less volatile reaction from North Korea and more peaceful engagement but they are the variables that determine whether the regime will pay its respects at your funeral or eternally compare you to a rat.

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