Fifteen years ago this month a historic event in the history of post-Cold War Korea took place: the first inter-Korean summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and South Korea’s then-President Kim Dae-jung.
The efforts netted the South Korean president a Nobel Prize and launched a new era of cooperation between the two, with the founding of the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region and the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
In subsequent years the event has lost much of its luster. It would later be revealed that the Kim administration had funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to North Korea through Hyundai Asan – original operators of the Kumgang project.
After the election of another president – Roh Moo-hyun in 2002 – with a similar approach to the North, South Korean voters, either out of impatience with the North or a desire to prioritize the economy, in 2007 elected conservative president Lee Myung-bak, who was much less interested in cooperation.
Then, in 2008, the Kumgang resort shut down following the shooting death of a South Korean tourist. The joint industrial complex at Kaesong is also regularly imperiled by periods of inter-Korean tension.
Kim Dae-jung’s former chief personal secretary Kim Han-jung, as the right-hand man of the president known as “DJ,” spent the administration organizing the president’s daily encounters and public events. He also spent two nights in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang during the 2000 summit.
Looking back, he told NK News the summit, and the attendant Sunshine Policy of DJ and Roh, could be considered a partial success; for example, the connections established by the policy prevented escalation following the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong in 2002, he said. However, he said its conciliatory efforts were undermined by the harder-line policy of the United States in the ’00s, and he believes current President Park Geun-hye could adopt aspects from the policy to accomplish the trust-building process she has touted.
NK News: Was the Sunshine Policy worth the massive payouts?
Kim: I believe that the relations between North and South Korea are based on recession, progress, depression and changes. It has been almost 70 years since the partition of the Korean Peninsula, so the relationship between North and South Korea needs to be looked at with more time. President Kim Dae-jung did not believe that this would bring about immediate changes. He said that it would be a start, a small start, yet a very important one nonetheless.
Have you wondered why President Kim’s Sunshine Policy was possible? It was because he had support from the Clinton administration
Thankfully, President Roh continued President Kim’s unification legacy, the 10 years during President Kim and Roh’s time in office was the first time in history when two Koreas tried to make fundamental changes in their relationship. Many see South Korea-North Korea relations as only restricted by the ROK government and the DPRK government. But I think such perspectives need to change. Unification of the two Koreas is closely intertwined with relations between the four nations (China, Russia, Japan and the United States) surrounding the Korean Peninsula, as well.
Have you wondered why President Kim’s Sunshine Policy was possible? It was because he had support from the Clinton administration at that time, they were far friendlier toward the North and that made North Korea lower its guards and hold the historic summit between the two Koreas.
NK News: Was the Sunshine Policy successful at all?
Kim: I think the result of summit was only half-successful. But first, we can’t judge the Sunshine Policy based on the political situation in 2015, but we need to look back to how the situation was in 2000. I still believe it was the best choice that the ROK government could have made in 2000. It was the first time in history that the ROK proposed a unification policy that wasn’t based on a show-down with the DPRK, but was filled with reconciliation and conversation.
I remember President Clinton saying, “Kim Dae-jung, I will sit in the passenger seat, you can be the driver.” That is how much it was different back in 2000. Of course, you can say it was just diplomatic rhetoric from Clinton’s administration, but you have to focus on the fact that the inter-Korean Summit was done with close cooperation between the four countries surrounding the Korean Peninsula.
Those who question the inter-Korean summit’s effect or deny its positive outcome always point out that the summit did not prevent North Korea from launching missiles and being more aggressive. But I do not think it is logical to connect North Korea’s aggression with the Sunshine Policy. First, if the Sunshine Policy had continued there would be no reason for DPRK to carry out the development of nuclear weapons. Of course, the DPRK would have not given up its WMDs instantly, but the Sunshine Policy would’ve given them all the reasons to lower nuclear tensions with the world.
NK News: What was the biggest obstacle to continuation of Sunshine Policy?
Kim: It was broken down when the Bush administration came to power after Clinton’s. The 9/11 terror attack forced the U.S. towards aggressive one-way diplomacy and the world was frozen with fear of war. Condoleeza Rice’s speech on the necessity of a regime change in North Korea and Bush’s (2002) remarks on the Axis of Evil did not help the situation either.
(Columbia University professor) Charles Armstrong wrote a book called Tyranny of the Weak, a book that was about the relationship between the U.S. and the DPRK; it analyzed why the DPRK has chosen a policy of provocation and isolation. The book pointed out that the reason behind its aggression, dictatorship and seclusion is to hide its weakness when compared to other countries.
NK News: What was Kim Jong Il like?
Kim: I shook Kim Jong Il’s hand and he had a grip like a bear’s. His hand was huge and really thick. I think his hand might have become swollen, as his health was not in the best condition. Kim Jong Il had that gravitas as the boss and he seemed relaxed all the time. I could tell that he was putting forth great effort not to look arrogant in front of President Kim.
When we think of North Korea’s leaders, we often imagine arrogant and erratic people. But Kim Jong Il was humorous, relaxed and extremely informed on current events. He did not need a paper to read from, it was already all organized in his head.
NK News: How was the last day of summit?
Kim: President Kim and Kim Jong Il both signed the 6.15 Joint Agreements and we decided to have a farewell luncheon. Actually, the luncheon was not even part of original schedule. Kim Jong Il ordered his team to quickly organize a party room and all of our staves were invited to the Baek Hwa Won, the equivalent to the DPRK’s top guesthouse.
All of the DPRK military’s influential officers came to the head table and, surprisingly, they all saluted President Kim Dae-jung, like Kim Jong Il ordered them to. We saw it as a gesture displaying his control over the DPRK military, but it was still surprising that North Korea’s top military officials saluted to South Korea’s president.
NK News: What is your assessment on First Battle of Yeonpyeong (in July 1999) and its aftermath?
Kim: There are three rules we had in the Sunshine Policy. First, the ROK would leave no room for military provocations. Second, the ROK would officially recognize the DPRK’s government. Third, the ROK would work step by step to build trust between two Koreas. The first Battle of Yeonpyeong happened in 1999, the second year of Kim’s presidency. Ironically, it happened on June 15th, exactly one year before the historic summit between the two Koreas.
As blue crab is one of DPRK’s main sources of income, during fishing season many North Korean fishing ships crossed the Northern Limit Line to catch as much crab as they can. The ships were guarded by North Korean patrol boats and as they crossed NLL, ROK navy boats pushed the DPRK back from the NLL. Suddenly, gunshots were fired from one of the North Korean patrol boats and the ROK navy reacted. One North Korean ship was sunk, while five were partially destroyed and barely made it back to port. Twenty DPRK naval soldiers were killed in action and more than 100 were injured; the ROK suffered only six casualties with zero deaths.
This showed that the first rule of the Sunshine policy – “the ROK will leave no room for military provocations” – actually worked during a time of crisis. But the resolution of the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong was far graver.
NK News: What is your assessment on Second Battle of Yeonpyeong and its aftermath?
Kim: During the 2002 World Cup, ROK patrol boats went to the NLL without the assistance of a guard ship. It is fixed rule for guard ships to protect patrol boats as they have little fire power. But the ROK Navy commander sent patrol boats on their own, without any guard ships protecting them.
The fact that such grave military provocations between two militaries did not directly lead to political havoc clearly showed the need for closer political ties
That was when North Korean navy boats ambushed our boats and killed many of our soldiers. The only reason that this military provocation did not escalate into full-scale war was because of the hotline between Pyongyang and Seoul.
According to a transmission on the Seoul-Pyongyang hotline, DPRK clarified that no such order to engage ROK ships had been given and they offered a sincere apology and promised efforts to prevent the recurrence of such provocations.
The fact that such grave military provocations between two militaries did not directly lead to political havoc clearly showed the need for closer political ties between the two Koreas.
NK News: Do you think the second Battle of Yeonpyeong revealed the true nature of Kim Jong Il?
Kim: Kim Jong Il might have actually given the order to hit a ROK navy boat and act as if no order was given. But we still decided to believe in the DPRK’s intentions and finish organizing the 2002 World Cup without causing international havoc by cancelling the semifinals.
The second Battle of Yeonpyeong also showed the duality of Kim Jong Il. I believe that he might have condoned or even secretly ordered the attack on the ROK boats in order to get the support of the DPRK military’s hardliners.
The politics between the two Koreas are filled with gray areas. It has been like this and it will be like this in the future. It is “flexible politics” that can maneuver through the gray areas, and that is the reason why we need to concentrate on emphasizing the need for interaction between the two Koreas. Close political ties are only thing that will prevent unintentional external effects from further worsening the relationship between them.
NK News: What is your assessment of Kim Jong Un’s reign thus far?
Kim: I believe that the first four years of Kim Jong Un’s reign were a success. After Kim Jong Il’s death, no one believed that Kim Jong Un would be able to lead DPRK successfully but he has managed to control the country without any problems.
There is no evidence of instability in Kim’s regime. The process of purging governmental officials in the DPRK is not a new process; it is a continuation from Kim Il Sung’s reign. This is just a process to strengthen Kim Jong Un’s regime by surrounding himself with his people. There is no civil unrest in North Korea; people are walking around freely with Mickey Mouse backpacks even though the government doesn’t endorse extravagant or showy attire.
The atmosphere in Pyongyang is more relaxed. It is wishful thinking to hope for North Korea to collapse from within. One needs to look at North Korea’s policies with a more critical stance. Once the regime change from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un settles down, it will be more probable to hope for negotiations with North Korea.
NK News: What is your assessment of North Korea’s recent aggression towards South Korea?
Kim: As much as the international world is responsible of North Korea’s aggression and regression on unification policy, North Korea itself is also responsible for many of today’s negative outcomes. Choosing nuclear weapons as a mean of defense is one possible selection among many, but it is certainly not the best selection in overall.
But we have to remember, did the sanctions, economic blockades and pressure on the North Korean regime and strategic patience change the North in any positive way? I do not think so, it is politically not correct to criticize North’s choice while leaving no viable alternative choice for North Korea. In particular, the Bush administration’s pressure on the North and Obama’s “strategic patience,” hoping for Kim Jong Un’s collapse, was nothing but wishful thinking.
Those kinds of strategies only lead North Korea to be more stubborn toward the world, and the political burden that comes from such choices, is mostly to be carried by South Korea alone.
NK News: What is your assessment of Park Geun-hye’s Unification Policy?
The main problem for Park’s policy in DPRK is that they have not carried out their promises
Kim: President’s Park’s policy toward North Korea can be divided into two parts. At first, it was focused on the process of building trust and the second was investing in North Korea. The main problem for Park’s policy in the DPRK is that they have not carried out their promises, thus breaking the trust between North and South Korea. If there is no basis of trust, then how can one expect cooperation and try to do business with North Korea? The unification process cannot solely rely on investing and cooperation. With the view of unification under investment in DPRK, it will not be possible for President Park to reap any results, because this point of view will not be successful.
NK News: What can President Park do to restore the trust between the two Koreas?
Kim: I believe that in the beginning of Park’s administration, they should have pursued the Sunshine Policy by following through with the 6.15 Joint Summit between North and South Korea. Park has to push for Kim Jong Un to follow through with Kim Jong Il’s promises from 6.15 summit. If the tension between North and South Korea continues, ROK would benefit because Kim Jong Un would be branded as breaking the treaty that his father signed.
Park’s conservative political style would have promoted the reunification process but she was unable to continue with the process. Park’s process of building trust in the DPRK is the same strategy promoted in the Sunshine Policy but the problem is the procedure of carrying out the policy. The South Korean government has not displayed any actions to promote talks for unification. There are no changes to the North-South relations because South Korea has not taken any specific actions due to collision within the country, but there is still hope for some progress.
Main picture: Kim Han-jung (right) shakes hands with Kim Jong Il during the 2000 summit. Courtesy of Kim Han-jung
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