Was the Sunshine Policy a Mistake?

|Korean Peninsula

It is commonly known that the DPRK policy of the Kim Dae-jung administration, formed in the ROK in 1998, and the Roh Moo-hyun administration which followed it is a policy of reconciliation called the Sunshine Policy. However, with the nuclear tests carried out by the DPRK on 9 October 2006, a dispute has arisen in the ROK concerning evaluations of the Sunshine Policy. Criticisms are beginning to emerge that the DPRK developed its nuclear program precisely because the ROK promoted the Sunshine Policy. On 25 October, Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok, who had been a key figure in the promotion of the Sunshine Policy in the Roh Moo-hyun administration, announced his resignation. However, this does not mean that the Roh Moo-hyun administration will relinquish the Sunshine Policy. The debate over the question “Was the Sunshine Policy a mistake?” seems set to continue. However, assessments are likely to be divided according to what people believe was the objective of the Sunshine Policy.

If they think that the aim of the Sunshine Policy was to halt the DPRK’s nuclear development program, it would have to be deemed a failure. This is because one can well imagine that the influx of funding to the DPRK resulting from the Sunshine Policy has aided its nuclear development. Nuclear weapons development costs a great deal of money. For the DPRK, with its small economy, this must have been painful expenditure. In which case, it cannot be denied that the money flowing in from the ROK and China gave the DPRK the financial wherewithal to develop nuclear weapons.

If the ROK thought that the DPRK would not develop nuclear weapons if the two countries were reconciled and the South did not give the North a sense of crisis, then this was clearly a mistake. The DPRK has a sense of crisis due to the threat from the US, rather than due to any threat from the ROK. An appeasement policy on the part of the US would be likely to give the DPRK a sense of security. However, reconciliation by the ROK does not make the DPRK any less anxious.

On the other hand, if its objective was to change and disrupt the regime in the DPRK, then the Sunshine Policy was not necessarily a mistake. This is because the social change arising from economic development is one of the factors that contributes to a military coup d’état. Of course, it is not the case that economic development necessarily leads to a military coup d’état. However, it is known that the social change arising from economic development weakens the ability of a government to govern, thereby making it easier for a military coup d’état that will overthrow the government to occur.

I often hear the opinion that systems in the DPRK will become unstable if starvation, rather than economic development, spreads through the country. However, the governance of the Chinese Communist Party and the Soviet Communist Party was stable even during periods when there was widespread starvation. It is not necessarily the case that the starving people will receive food if the regime collapses. Rather than bringing down the regime, a more sensible way for people to satisfy their hunger is to flee to a country that has food. People who have fled their country do not destabilize the administration of that country. Therefore, the opinion that starvation will destabilize a regime is not very appropriate.

There may be those who will start to say that the Sunshine Policy was correct because if the regime collapses, the DPRK will relinquish its nuclear weapons. However, it is not necessarily the case that the DPRK will abandon nuclear weapons just because the regime collapses. We can see this if we look at Pakistan. Pakistan, which conducted its first nuclear tests in 1998, experienced a coup d’état the next year, in 1999, and the government was overturned. However, it continues to have nuclear weapons, even today. The assertion that a country will abandon nuclear weapons if it becomes democratic is also not very persuasive. If we look at the fact that more than half of the countries that have nuclear weapons are democratic regimes, we can see that it is rash to believe that democratization leads to the relinquishment of nuclear weapons.

The debate over the Sunshine Policy seems set to continue. However, if the debate continues while the objective of the Sunshine Policy remains ambiguous, it will merely be a pointless argument. Due to this debate, the ROK’s diplomacy may be paralyzed for some time. Furthermore, there is only about a year until the presidential election and this debate is likely to continue among the election candidates as well. The ROK’s foreign policy may yet reach even greater heights of confusion.

[Translated by ERINA]