The “sunshine generation” is coming to an end. In South Korea, Kim Dae-Jung’s death comes hard on the heels of Roh Moo-Hyun’s suicide. In North Korea, meanwhile, Kim Jong-Il has been planning for his own succession. These three men were responsible for two inter-Korean summits and a host of agreements, exchanges, and political breakthroughs. As the “sunshine generation” — named after the “sunshine policy” of Kim Dae Jung — they worked together to show Koreans a glimpse of the light at the end of the long tunnel of the Cold War. The recent progress in North-South relations — a released South Korean detainee, an agreement to reenergize several key projects — suggests that the policies of this generation are still bearing fruit.
Nevertheless, some commentators are using the passing of these three Korean leaders as an opportunity to pronounce the engagement policies of the 1990s finally dead. The “sunshine policy” was a failure, they declare. It cost a lot of money, including some very suspicious backdoor payments. It was asymmetrical, because South Korea invested more in the project than North Korea did. It didn’t achieve its intended goals, short-term or long-term. It was patronizing to North Koreans, for it treated them collectively as younger brothers. And, finally, it appeased North Korea, sustaining the Kim Jong Il regime longer than its natural lifespan. The passing of the sunshine generation, they suggest, is a welcome end to a misguided period in Korean history.
These criticisms of the sunshine policy are not wholly without merit. Kim Dae Jung indeed supplied North Korea with as much as $500 million in order to secure the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. Over the last decade, South Koreans have sent billions of dollars to the North in the form of payments for the Kumgang Mountain and Kaesong tourism projects, inputs for the Kaesong industrial zone, humanitarian aid, and so on. In return, North Korea hasn’t shown much willingness at all to discuss outstanding human rights issues such as South Korean abductees. With the South Korean and North Korean economies growing every more divergent and the political systems still worlds apart, reunification doesn’t seem much closer today than it did 10 years ago. Given this continuing economic divergence, the North Korean government has come to depend on South Korean aid, investment, and trade at a time when other countries have kept Pyongyang at arm’s length. And with the balance of power shifted toward the South, the “sunshine policy” inevitably treated North Korea as either a man to be coaxed out of its heavy coat, a younger brother who should listen to the advice of the South Korean elder brother, or a donkey that must be pushed this way and that through the clever manipulation of carrots and sticks.
But in the grand scheme, these shortcomings are minor.
The sunshine policy was both a first step and a process, and should be judged accordingly. Because South Korea is the incomparably richer of the two, any relationship will necessarily have a built-in economic asymmetry. South Korea has helped the North financially both to help improve the lives of its compatriots and as a down payment on reunification (the cost of which will ultimately be steeper even than the prohibitively expensive German reunification). As such, South Koreans have viewed the money sent as both humanitarianism and a long-term investment, and have been more favorably inclined to funds going toward food and Kaesong investment than in the form of unrestricted cash transfers. As for reciprocity, the human rights issue remains extraordinarily sensitive, and South Korea was able to achieve some quiet successes (largely around bringing North Korean defectors out of China and other countries).
Was the sunshine policy both paternalistic and appeasing? Certainly several interpretations of the policy cast North Koreans in inferior, passive roles. But Kim Dae Jung treated North Koreans as humans, not the horned monsters of the old Cold War literature, and North Korea acknowledged this important shift. Roh Moo Hyun, by updating the “sunshine policy” to the “peace and prosperity policy,” went a long way toward ridding the relationship of its more paternalistic qualities. As for appeasement, this engagement policy gathered steam after North Korea had weathered its famine of the mid-1990s, so Kim Dae Jung did not prevent the North from collapsing. South Korea has gained enormously from engagement: at a human level (divided family reunions), social level (tourism trips), economic level (profitable opportunities for medium-sized businesses), and geopolitical level (greater peace and stability in the region).
It is true that the sunshine policy didn’t produce reunification. But it wasn’t supposed to, not immediately. Kim Dae Jung always viewed the process as a 20-year effort, at minimum, and he didn’t try to oversell the project. Nevertheless, we can glimpse what reunification might look like with the Kaesong industrial zone. There, 40,000 North Korean workers labor in factories built with South Korean money and run by South Korean managers. It is unequal. It is asymmetrical. But it is also a first attempt to even the playing field through technology transfer and genuine cooperation. The Kaesong project is far from the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But it is nevertheless an important step toward this slow-motion reunification.
With the passing of the sunshine generation, inter-Korean relations will become the responsibility of a new group of politicians and activists. This is not only appropriate but necessary. West Germany’s ostpolitik of engaging East Germany, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union only became a viable policy when it ceased being a project of Social Democrats and became the property of all West German political parties. So far, both Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun had represented the left side of South Korea’s political spectrum. Only when South Korea’s current conservative president Lee Myung Bak, or his ideological colleagues, realize that substantively engaging North Korea is the only viable option available to Seoul will a true nordpolitik emerge in South Korea.
For this to happen, though, Lee Myung Bak must put his own imprint on engagement policy. A third inter-Korean summit, with Kim Jong Il or his successor, will be an indispensible part of securing the legacy of the sunshine generation.
Such a summit, inconceivable during the first hawkish months of Lee’s presidency, has become a little less improbable in recent days. After a visit from Hyundai’s chairwoman, North Korea released the company’s employee that had been detained for several months. The agreement between Hyundai and the North announces the resumption of the tourism projects — and an expansion to Mt. Paekdu — as well as a desire to “energize” the Kaesong industrial complex project.
This news came just before Kim Dae-Jung’s death. It was followed by an even more welcome development: North Korea will send five envoys to Kim’s funeral. Even after his death, Kim Dae-Jung is still bringing the two Koreas closer together.