South Korea Under Pressure to Relax Pyongyang Policy

Pyongyang has limited all but essential train travel passing over the border between South Korea and North Korea from Dec. 1, limiting access for South Korean technicians and officials. The stand off has resulted in yet another serious deadlock in the relationship between two Koreas and brings the present South Korean government hardline policy to a crossroads.

The latest antipathy comes as a result of North Korea's disquiet towards the South's President Lee Myung-bak's "nuclear-free, opening, $3,000" North Korea policy. The plan, in essence, states that South Korea will support the DPRK economically until the per capita income of North Korea reaches $3,000 on the strict condition that North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons program and opens up its economy.

This policy is a contrast with the more liberal "Sunshine Policy" pursued by more moderate South Korean governments over the past decade. First proposed by former president Kim Dae-jung, the sunshine initiative was less a containing policy than a program that promoted communication and negotiations between the two Koreas. The Sunshine Policy's aim was to instigate dialogue at the top of the two administrations which the South hoped would lead to the relieving of tension and the opening up of North Korea.

As a result of this thawing of relations, former president Kim Dae-jung met with the North Korean leader Kim Jung-il in an historic meeting at Pyongyang on June 15, 2000, where they agreed on a declaration which emphasized the cooperation of the two Koreas to achieve independent and peaceful unification. It was followed by cooperation in the construction of Gaesung Industrial Complex, joint tourist industries in the mountain Kumkangsan, cross-border railway travel and other initiatives which contributed to better relations between Seoul and Pyongyang.

However, since his election in February, 2008, President Lee Myung-bak and his ruling Grant National Party have insisted that the policy had been a failure since much of the large-scale economic support provided to North Korea over the course of the program was diverted to North Korea's nuclear experiments. Moreover, human rights in North Korea, which was a component of the aid agreement, has hardly improved in Kim's reclusive country over several decades.

President Lee's administration maintains that the relationship between two Koreas was unfair in that South Korea agreed to support North Korea while apparently receiving little in return. Therefore, on the principle of reciprocity, the current ruling power in Seoul has strongly demanded that North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons. North Korea has opposed the request and gradually discontinued the cooperation projects with South Korea, marking a return to heightened tensions between the two nations.

Critics of the current policy have said it is not obvious that the hardline policy of President Lee Myung-bak will be successful.Many experts believe the relationship between United States and North Korea will improve after Barack Obama comes into power, giving North Korea less dependence on support and cooperation projects with South Korea.

While reciprocity is a basic diplomatic principle, the current South Korean government has applied it far too strictly to North Korea, regardless of the uniqueness of the relationship between the two countries. Since the problem of nuclear weapons has not being solved by the six-way talks, South Korea does not need to insist on the condition for interchange between the two.

In addition, the Sunshine Policy recognized that investment in North Korea is a necessary long term goal despite lack of returns in the short term. The policy saw that investing in North Korea as a potential future market would eventually pay dividends. Though South Korean people may have seen supporting North Korea as an economic burden, the policy saw the long term political and economic benefits, gained through cooperation with Pyongyang, would be many. Thus, the current South Korean government could appreciate better the advantages of the Sunshine Policy in the sense of its economic reciprocity and the potential in investing in DPRK markets.

However, the disadvantages of dissipating tensions as occurred during the Sunshine policy also need to be taken into account. For example, the national security readiness of many in the armed forces were reported to have been relaxed. It should be remembered that West Germany also had carried out a policy similar with the Sunshine policy prior to East/West German unification during which time it is alleged the then East Germany took advantage of the rapprochement to send more than 10,000 spies to West Germany.

Therefore, with a mild, liberal policy towards North Korea, South Korea should ensure they not only improve relations, but also improve the security of the country and make the democracy stronger.


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