Today's date:
  Summer 2003


Let the Sun Keep Shining on North Korea

Ra Jong-yil is national security advisor to South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun.

Seoul—The policy of the present Korean administration is at once a continuation and expansion of the "sunshine policy" initiated by former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. Even in light of North Korea’s recent claim that it possesses a nuclear weapon, we remain as convinced as ever that engagement through our "policy of peace and prosperity" is the proper approach.

The principle of the engagement policy is simple: to unilaterally move toward reconciliation with North Korea, starting with issues in the limited realm of low politics and gradually expanding the areas of common concern until enough trust has been built up to finally establish institutions leading to eventual unification.

Leaving aside the truism that it requires two sides to reconcile, South Korea also took the initiative in the form of humanitarian assistance, shipping food and fertilizer to the North.

This political approach deviates sharply from that prevalent during the last century. In place of pursuing a grand agenda in the name of national glory or ideology or "fugoku gyohei"—the Japanese term for the economic and military strength of a nation—the policy of engagement is aimed at addressing the basic necessities of individuals: better food, medical care, education and a wider range of choices for everyone in whatever station of life. In other words, the political agenda must be defined in terms of concretely advancing human welfare.

In this perspective, even the reunification of Korea should be judged in terms of whether it would be able to contribute to the quality of life not only for Koreans but also everyone living around the Korean peninsula.

We want to avoid the fate of other instances in history in which apparently great political achievements were initially welcomed with enthusiasm but did little to improve the conditions of life and instead led to enormous suffering and misery.

Indeed, the first stage of engagement has succeeded in melting away the thick layer of ice left over from the Cold War era. There have been drastic increases in the number of contacts between the two sides of Korea. Only 2,405 South Koreans visited North Korea between 1989 and 1997, whereas 3,317 South Koreans visited the North in 1998 alone. The number increased rapidly to 12,825 in 2002. In the meantime, North Korean visitors to the South reached 1,052 in 2002. Altogether, 510,000 South Korean tourists went to Kumgangsan (Diamond Mountain), located in the southeastern coast of North Korean territory, between 1998 and February of 2003.

There has been a continuing stream of bilateral talks, including ministerial-level meetings, between the two sides, resulting in concrete breakthroughs in mostly functional areas such as railway linkages and the establishment of an industrial complex for South Korean companies just north of the western end of the demilitarized zone that separates the two parts of the peninsula.

To date, there have been six family reunions for relatives who had not been able to meet or communicate with each other for nearly 50 years, one exchange of letters and two searches to identify family members who are still alive. In June 2000, of course, the historic inter-Korean summit was held.

These achievements may appear modest to an outsider. However, there were many difficulties, including strong domestic opposition. Despite this, the previous government held its course—as will this government. Considering the past half-century of tragic confrontation between two sides locked in a zero-sum game of conflict, the breakthrough has been remarkable.

To build on this achievement, President Roh Moo Hyun has set out the guidelines for future engagement: to resolve all pending issues through dialogue; to give priority to building mutual trust and upholding reciprocity; to seek active international cooperation on the premise that South and North Korea are the two main actors in inter-Korean relations; to enhance transparency, expand citizen participation and secure bipartisan support for engagement.

The immediate task ahead, of course, is to properly address what are commonly called "North Korean issues." Rather than be seen as a roadblock, working to resolve these issues can also be a good opportunity to promote better cooperation among the countries of the region.

There is remarkable consensus in the international community that it is not desirable for North Korea to develop weapons of mass destruction and that this problem should be dealt with peacefully and diplomatically. This basic consensus, I believe, is in part due to the achievements of the "sunshine policy." It is a confirmation that engagement remains the best path forward.