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Peace in the Korean Peninsula: Why America Must Respect the Return of the Sunshine Policy

In recent months, American President Donald Trump has driven up tensions with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), through his toxic rhetorical exchanges with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the installment of the THAAD missile system, and the performance of joint US-South Korea military exercises. What few people realize is the massive resistance to militarization within the southern Republic of Korea (ROK). The election of President Moon Jae-in, who ran on the platform of restoring the Sunshine policy toward the DPRK, has been seen by some foreign observers as a referendum supporting a pro-diplomacy approach to the conflict.

But what is the Sunshine policy? Originating from liberal President Kim Dae-jung in 1998, under whom Moon was chief of staff, and remaining foreign policy doctrine until the end of the Roh Moo-hyun administration in 2004, the Sunshine policy combined military assertiveness with dialogue and interaction between the ROK and the DPRK. Until the introduction of the policy, South Korea’s military autocrats and conservative presidents had maintained the political distance between the countries, allowing the difference in ideology to feed into diplomatic hostility. With the warming of relations by Kim Dae-jung, not only was the diplomatic situation lightened (despite the technical continuation of the Korean War throughout the Sunshine years), but economic and social ties exponentially burst across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Under the policy, Northern goods were sold in Southern department stores, bringing much needed trade to the DPRK and cheap, often diverse region-specific products such as snake wine (rice wine bottled along with a venomous snake carcass) to the South.

Businessman Felix Abt describes his experience with the Sunshine policy wherein “South Korean companies were not only permitted but actively encouraged to interact with the North; in many cases they benefited from subsidies.” Only last year, the last Kaesong industrial park was closed by former-President Park Geun-hye. The industrial park, located in the Northern city of Kaesong, was the crowning economic achievement of the Sunshine policy. At its peak, hundreds of Southern companies in the park employed greater than 50,000 Northern workers; such a feat seems near impossible to believe now, as many have begun to anachronistically see the Cold War era conflict as intrinsic to the Korean nation itself, as though a regional division between one current and one former military dictatorships characterized the whole history of Korea. As the thousands of Southerners permitted to visit the DPRK attested when they reunited with their families under the diplomatic opening of the Sunshine policy, the existence of the North-South conflict stands totally at odds with the desires of the Korean people.

What could have led to the downfall of this popular policy? In 1994, a deal between the United States and the DPRK, which made the Sunshine policy feasible, was signed. The Agreed Framework, as it was known, gave oil to the DPRK in exchange for halting the enrichment of weapons-grade plutonium. In 2003, the Framework fell apart as a result of the discovery of a secret uranium enrichment program in the North and the Bush administration’s subsequent refusal to continue supplying the North with oil. While the secret enrichment program was understandably unacceptable for the United States, there is little reason not to think the Framework could have been preserved had the secret program not given “those in the Bush administration who opposed the Agreed Framework a reason to abandon it.” With both parties leaving the Framework, the trilateral diplomatic basis of the Sunshine policy was in tatters. In 2008, the conservative Lee Myung-bak, a fierce opponent of the Sunshine policy, was elected President, putting the final nail in the coffin of the policy.

In today’s ROK, however, the policy is remembered favorably by the population, with 80% of South Koreans supporting direct ROK-DPRK negotiations. In spite of conservative claims of the leniency of the Sunshine policy on perceived Northern acts of aggression, neither liberal Presidents Kim Dae-jung nor Roh Moo-hyun hesitated to use deadly force when the Northern navy crossed the Northern Limit Line, the effective maritime border between the DPRK and the ROK along the Yellow Sea, in 1999 and again in 2002. Rather than demonstrating any “weakness” on the part of the ROK in its willingness to use conciliatory dialogue before violence and defensive rhetoric, the Sunshine policy was and is premised on the idea that Northern aggression will always be met with the superior military capacity of the combined US-ROK forces, and thus the Sunshine policy represents the best hope for existential survival on the part of the DPRK.

President Moon’s election is as much a vindication of the legacy of the Sunshine policy as it is a resounding condemnation of former-President Park’s pro-American militarism. While the latter was deposed earlier this year on account of her Rasputin-esque relation to a shaman and history of corruption with large Southern corporations such as Samsung, Moon’s political career emerged from his activist work as a labor lawyer. Grounded as a participant in the South’s democratization movement, Moon is widely seen as the progressive successor to Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

This has not kept many progressives from finding fault with his commitment to peace. As a result of Moon making concessions to conservatives within the ROK and the American military, he has faced criticism from pacifists within the ROK for not going far enough to end the technically ongoing Korean War. However, journalist Tim Shorrock cautions detractors on overestimating Moon’s power, saying, “South Korea is the only country in the world where a foreign general is in charge during times of war. There’s a joint US-South Korean command structure and in wartime, it falls under the command of a US general. So if there was a war today, the entire Korean military would be under US command.” The true Commander in Chief of the ROK, Donald Trump, thus holds as many Korean votes as Kim Jong-un.

This echoes a realist criticism many South Koreans have of a potential second Sunshine policy, that with further militaristic displays from President Trump, the DPRK has little reason to believe the second attempt represents anything substantial. The Bush administration’s consistent hostility against the North was likely decisive in their choice to nuclearize. Such hostility was embodied in Bush’s inclusion of the country in the “Axis of Evil” even after the DPRK agreed, in the Agreed Framework, to comply with the demands of the United States. Many progressives worry Trump’s threats against Kim Jong-un and the DPRK may have already rendered a new era of Sunshine a pipedream. The only hope for a rebirth of dialogue between the countries is for President Moon to reproach President Trump over his imperialistic rhetoric while also confronting Kim Jong-un on his reciprocation of these threats. The Korean War ongoing, and whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, the only possible outcomes are peace and eventual reunification, or the complete annihilation of the Korean people in a blaze of nuclear hellfire; there is no room for mistakes.