By Sam Jaffe When South Korean President Kim Dae Jung made his historic visit to Pyongyang last year, it seemed his "sunshine policy" of extending a hand of friendship to the communist North might actually produce a miraculous reconnection of the two societies. Then George W. Bush won the White House, and the euphoria ended. Bush quickly adopted a much more suspicious stance toward North Korea than his predecessor, Bill Clinton.
Nevertheless, that sighing sound you hear all over Seoul these days has a tone of relief to it. After two years of Kim's sunshine policy, South Korea has very little to show for its improved relationship with North Korea. Despite billions of
dollars of food aid, as well as many billions of dollars more in government-funded investment in North Korea's economy by South Korean corporations, there has been no tangible change in the North's bitter diplomatic assaults on Seoul, and Northern troops are still gathering along the 38th parallel.
"South Korea is comfortable with the good-cop role, and now the U.S. has taken the bad-cop role. If that's what it takes to bring about better relations between the two Koreas, then everyone wins," says Moon Hee Sang, a National Assembly representative from Kim Dae Jung's Minjoo party who serves as vice-chairman of the foreign-relations committee.
NO DEALS. Actually, Bush's position has turned out to be more that of a disinterested cop. During a summit with President Kim in March, Bush reiterated the usual diplomatic bromides about "a vision of peace on the Korean peninsula being a goal we share." But he also said his Administration had little interest in trying to strike a deal with North Korea anytime soon -- on ballistic missile research or any other matter.
"We look forward to, at some point in the future, having a dialogue with the North Koreans," Bush declared. "But any negotiations would require complete verification of the terms." In other words, Bush doesn't trust even a written agreement with the North.
In addition, the head of U.S. forces in Korea, Thomas Schwartz, recently testified before Congress that any rapprochement with the U.S. would have to include a significant decrease in spending on conventional weapons by North Korea. Traditionally, the U.S. has considered the halting of missile and nuclear weapons development to be its primary goal with the North. Adding conventional weapons reduction into the mix pushes back the goal posts.
STALLING FOR TIME. On its face, such a stance would seem to be directly contrary to the South Korean government's efforts to open up relationships with North Korea. In fact, though, there are few bruised egos in Seoul. In the harried last months of Clinton's Presidency, South Korea raced to make a breakthrough deal with the North that could be signed during a Kim Jong Il visit to Seoul.
Instead, the North stalled for time in advance of the U.S. election. "The last six months of the Clinton Administration was a golden opportunity, if we had rushed to meet it," says Kim Boo Ki, a political-science professor at Kyunggi University and a harsh critic of U.S. policy towards Asia. "But we didn't arrange a deal in time, and now we have to go through a long waiting process."
Representative Moon agrees: "Things seemed to be going too fast right after the summit," he says, referring to rapid fire changes such as the opening of joint tourist and industrial areas, as well as a few family reunifications. "Now is a good time to slow down and wait and see how North Korea is digesting all the changes."
NO PING-PONG DIPLOMACY. Pyongyang ensured that there would be a waiting period when it called off inter-ministerial talks to prepare for Kim Jong Il's summit visit to Seoul in response to Bush's comments. Such a visit, which seemed a sure thing last year, is now clouded in doubt. North Korea even went so far as to cancel a joint team being organized for an Asian table-tennis tournament. So much for ping-pong diplomacy.
Now, presidential elections, due to be held in South Korea in December, 2002, could further postpone negotiations between the two Koreas. Although Kim Dae Jung is constitutionally forbidden from running for a second term, his party's chances of retaining power lie mostly in the legacy that he leaves. It now seems certain that détente with North Korea won't be part of that legacy.
Meanwhile, the opposition party, which severely criticized Kim's sunshine policy when he first initiated it, has noticeably softened its rhetoric now that the policy appears to have failed. "I prefer the term 'engagement policy' to 'sunshine policy', because there has to be more mutuality. But in the long run, my party's position is almost indistinguishable from the ruling party's position," says Representative Park Geun Hye, a leading member of the opposition Grand National Party.
That joint vision is not immediate reunification, but a slow and steady process of growing together, to be initiated with confidence-building measures such as troop pullbacks, economic agreements, and possibly a peace treaty. For now, it's easy for everyone to agree, especially when only one side shows up to negotiate. Jaffe is a senior writer for BusinessWeek Online