No Sunshine on the Horizon?

September 21st, 2012

As the Korean Presidential race enters its final hundred days and candidates reveal their platforms and positions, questions arise as to their plans for Inter-Korean relations. The imminent departure of Lee Myung-Bak has left some North Korea watchers hopeful of fresh faces bringing with them a renewed stance of Korean co-operation.

It’s not an improbable hope. The wider Korean public seem to have lost appetite for most things associated with the Lee Myung-Bak administration (with approval ratings as low as 30%), with many fed up of his often confrontational style. The Asan Institute has seen a recent shift in citizen attitudes with polls indicating that the public now sees the DUP (the party of the left which previously championed the “sunshine policy”) as the best party for future North-South relations.  In this regard, the Institute note:

“It should be noted that the surge in respondents viewing the DUP as more capable comes in the wake of the death of Kim Jong-Il. This turns conventional wisdom on its head. Generally, it is assumed that any perceived instability on the Korean Peninsula benefits the GNP. Yet, Kim’s death has not had a significant effect. While there was a short-lived boost in support for President Lee and the GNP, it has almost completely eroded”.

These changes in the ROK overlap with signs of reform in the DPRK. It seems the Pyongyang regime is now actively seeking to overhaul the North’s relations with its neighbours. In this sense, might it be time for the next Seoul administration to reintroduce a sunshine policy onto the peninsula?

Unfortunately, despite the promise of new, friendlier faces in power in the South, none of the candidates are really in the position to offer a new sunshine era and the peninsula in general is in no position to play host to such a policy.

The candidates have been talking the talk to an extent. The Saenuri representative and current front runner Park Geun-Hye has promised “a flexible policy open to negotiations”, and an all-round more open stance to North Korea. However, any changes from Ms.Park would likely be limited; she still represents the party of the hard-liners and she has also said a more open policy from Seoul is conditional on North Korea playing its part, a country which has never responded well to conditional offers. Above all this, as the Korean Times points out, her position on the matter is still ‘vague’.  And she is not alone in this.

Opposition candidate Ahn Cheol-Soo has thus far not prioritized North Korea in his until recently ambiguous Presidential campaign.  Korea Real Time reports that “Only nine of [his] book’s 275 pages are focused on North Korea”. That said, Mr. Ahn did speak enough on the matter to make it clear that he rejects a return to the Sunshine approach, saying it “made achievements in reducing tension. But there were controversies over giving them [North Korea] too much and there were ideological conflicts in the South”.  His policy instead is one of friendly economic cooperation, but his language and ideas seem heavily focused on the possible economic and material gains for the South. In this sense, one wonders whether the North will see his position as one of ‘economic cooperation’ or economic exploitation? Another vague position from a candidate, but it is clear to this author that Mr. Ahn will also not be the one to bring back the Sunshine Policy.

Current DUP front runner Moon Jae-in has been much more forthcoming about his plans to reintroduce the Sunshine Policy, promising a complete and uncompromising return. However, once again the questions regard the specifics. Although the public have tired of Lee Myung-Bak’s harsh policies, Moon Jae-in is potentially misreading the situation if he feels the public is in a mood to forgive and forget, and he has skirted questions on whether he would seek apologies from the DPRK regime for the Cheonan or Yeongpyeongdo before continuing negotiations. His DPRK friendly stance was also seen as a possible reason for his party’s poor showing in April parliamentary election, which took place under the spectre of North Korea’s satellite/rocket launch. Moon Jae-in seems genuine in his hope for a return to the Sunshine Policy, but how long can he stand by it if it is not a vote winner, and how will he implement it without receiving apologies from the North? On top of this, his stance is rather reliant of the North refraining from any provocative actions before the election, which only a brave man would bet against.

Even if one of the candidates does push forward with a new détente with North Korea, he or she may face problems from the other side. It takes two to tango and despite North Korea reaching out to everyone from Tehran to Tokyo, there is still little sign they might want to engage with Seoul. The previous sunshine policy may have been a 10 year campaign in the South, but professor Moon Chung-in argues that it can only be seen as a complete policy for the nine months in which North Korea agreed to it. The Blue House may face a similar problem again. The North has rejected the South’s latest offer of flood aid, and while this in itself is not shocking or surprising it is also not the reaction many were hoping for after seeing the new regime reach out to so many others. Even if the currently rumoured reforms go ahead, they are very much economic focussed. Although this is not bad news for Seoul, it also may not be the good news many are choosing to see it as. North Korea’s attempts to win new friends (and their money), may for the moment mean they are simply not all that focussed on inter-Korean matters. Indeed, apart from the flood aid spat and a few stray boats, things have been relatively quiet along the 38th. This is a refreshing change from recent tensions, but this improvement seems to be more from situation than design.

The change in leadership in the South will open many opportunities for a new relationship with the North, and there is a real hope and chance we will see improvements, but it looks like it will be a case of small changes and flexible responses, and not a return to the Sunshine Policy.

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About the Author

David Slatter

David Slatter is a remote contributor and intern-editor for NKNews. He is a resident of Seoul and is active in the North Korean Human Rights movement there. He is a graduate of International History and Politics, and the current focus of his study and writing is Inter-Korean relations.