Sunshine or Sunburn?

A second attempt at liberalism in inter-Korean relations.

by Jihwan Kim, contributor

The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang are underway, initiated by an opening ceremony with a discernible emphasis on peace and prosperity between the two Koreas. The two delegations walked side by side under a unified flag and uniform to the ecstatic approval of the rest of the world. Such a tangible demonstration of peace is surely a source of optimism- or is it? This article will look back on the last two decades of South Korea’s policy towards its estranged brothers to the North to contextualize the significance of President Moon Jae-In’s re-introduction of Liberalism.


The inauguration of Kim Dae-Jung in 1998 officially signified the Blue House’s departure from conservative policy towards North Korea with Kim’s introduction of the ‘Sunshine Policy’. Inspired by Willy Brandt’s rapprochement with East Germany, known as Ostpolitik, Kim Dae-Jung endeavored to depart from his predecessors’ obsession with national security and strove for reconciliation with North Korea through means of peaceful co-existence and cooperation. He simplified legal procedures for inter-Korean economic partnerships, sent frequent humanitarian aid and strictly opposed sanctions. These demonstrations of goodwill were met poorly in Pyongyang as Kim Jong-Il was weary of South Korea’s ‘subservient’ position to the United States. These conflicting views reached its apex in the summer of 1999 with the first battle of Yeonpyeong resulting in 30 total casualties. Even with this blatant act of aggression, Kim Dae-Jung remained firm on his policy. On June 12, 2000, Kim Dae-Jung’s continued efforts seemed to have paid off as it resulted in the first official meeting of the North and South governments since the Korean War. The world responded accordingly; rewarding Kim with the Nobel Peace Prize, and many holding their breath for the imminent official announcement. However, such an announcement never came- the two governments, in fact, did not discuss security issues or any tangible process toward reunification. It was soon discovered that the Kim administration secretly sent $500 Million for the proceedings to take place. For a country just escaping from an economic recession, this was not met kindly by the South Korean populace. Carrying on the Liberal tradition, Kim’s successor Roh Moo-Hyun, continued to extend the olive branch towards Pyeongyang with his ‘Peace and prosperity policy’ which, similarly to his predecessor, strove for reunification in terms of peace and cooperation. Roh also continued his predecessor’s tradition of alienating the United States, further aggravating public approval.


Overall, President Kim and Roh’s Sunshine Policy were viewed as catastrophic failures; their soft-line stance towards North Korea resulted in the North’s newly acquired nuclear weapons capability, and furthermore, their passive attitude spurred Pyeongyang to act even more aggressively. Human rights were not at all improved in North Korea, and Seoul’s relationship with the US was at an all time low. The new conservative administration under Lee Myung-Bak can therefore be viewed as a reaction to the two previous governments. Shortly after his inauguration in 2008 Lee introduced his policy of ‘Mutual Benefits and Common Prosperity’ which included the ‘De-nuke, open 3,000’ and the ‘Grand Bargain’ initiatives. His policies were underlined with the fundamental belief that peace would not be achieved if Pyeongyang continued to possess nuclear weapons. The ‘De-nuke, open 3,000’ initiative was an offer to increase North Korean per capita income by $3,000 for denuclearization, but was quickly shot-down by Kim Jong-Il. The ‘Grand Bargain’ initiative was meant to multilaterally coordinate North Korean de-nuclearization among Japan, China, South Korea, the United States and Russia, but like his ‘De-nuke’ initiative, led to no tangible conclusions. As tensions began to re-emerge, after years of relative peace under Kim and Roh, on March 26, 2010, the Cheonan Warship was torpedoed by the North Korean navy, resulting in over 30 South Korean deaths. Following this attack, the Lee administration shifted to a hardline stance with three counter measures. The May 24 Measure, or ‘proactive deterrence’, meaning any ill intention from the North would be met with attack, suspension of all economic exchanges, and heavy international sanctions. By the end of Lee’s administration, inter-Korean relations were effectively paralyzed and tensions were at their highest since the Korean War. 

Lee Myung-Bak’s hardline stance towards North Korea was reactive and retaliatory. Re-unification through absorption is an outdated and incoherent policy decision; waging war to simply punish the North places innocent lives at risk and eliminates the opportunity for future dialogue. Furthermore, such emphasis on security only heightens South Korea’s vulnerability to attack, rendering inter-Korean relations into essentially a game of chicken. It is important to note however; the Inter-Korean security dilemma is unlike the classical rendition that deals with the balance of power between two states. Though the South views the North as its main hindrance to peace, the North regards the United States as its ultimate threat. Furthermore, although North Korea develops weapons to deter American attack, it has demonstrated in the past that it is willing to exchange its military capabilities for economic support. North Korea benefits from asymmetrical negotiations, where its relative weakness is a vital asset.


Thus, president Moon Jae-In has quite the maze to navigate in the remaining four years of his presidency. Considering the constitutional power of the president in South Korea (the President is granted such powers that it is often referred to as an ‘imperial presidency’), Moon has the potential to make palpable improvements to South Korea’s relationship with the North. However, his recent decision to feature the unified Koreas at the Olympics is completely insignificant. Following this demonstration of goodwill, the Koreas are not any closer to reunification than they were in 1953. Resources spent on these superficial and inconsequential presentations may be met with approval by the global community, but results in no discernible advancements. His first concern regarding reunification should be to mend the deeply rooted social, economic and generational cleavages in South Korean society to hopefully consolidate universal approval of a coherent strategy in the future. Considering the rising unemployment rates, elderly suicides, and business conglomerates that continue to command South Korean economics, South Korea is not in any position to single-handedly head the reunification of the two Koreas. He has witnessed the failures of both extremes of soft and hard-line policy, it is up to his administration to find a logical middle ground.