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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Sunshine and Appeasement

by | March 13th, 2013 | 06:39 am
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The “Sunshine Policy” of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung derived its name from Aesop’s fable of the North Wind and the Sun in which the Sun and Wind compete to see which can strip the coat off a traveler.  While the Wind fruitlessly attempts to blow away the coat off, the Sun uses its warmth to induce the traveler to disrobe. Analogously, engagement was originally conceived as an instrument: the point was to encourage sufficient systemic evolution within North Korea to establish a meaningful basis for reconciliation and, ultimately, national unification. While this means that North must feel secure to reform, ultimately the success of the policy must be judged on how effectively it has encouraged the evolution of North Korea in constructive directions.

While US and South Korean interests are fundamentally aligned they are not precisely congruent, and the “Sunshine Policy” presented an example where they diverged at the margin.  From a South Korean perspective, economic projects like the Kaesong Industrial Complex or the Mount Kumgang tourism project were necessary loss leaders to get engagement rolling after decades of distrust and enmity.  If the North Korean regime invested some of the proceeds in military modernization it would not affect the fundamental military balance on the peninsula: with 10,000 artillery tubes pointed at Seoul, the marginal threat increase associated with the 10,001st is vanishingly small. For the US, however, the real threat was nuclear and missile proliferation beyond the peninsula, particularly to the Middle East, so the potential threat increase was non-negligible.

The government of President Roh Moo-hyun adopted a different view of engagement, regarding it less as a tactic to achieve a transformative goal, than as a goal in and of itself, as made clear in an interesting essay by former national security advisor Ra Jong-il. He begins his essay by stating that “I do not believe that the unification of Korea will be possible in the near future. Nor do I believe that it would be desirable if its cost were high in terms of human sacrifice. The two societies have already evolved so apart from one another that it will not be possible for them to come under one roof for a very long time…The best we can hope for is that the two sides will be able to create a regime under which they can coexist in peace like ordinary neighboring countries.”

He then goes on to starkly differentiate this conception of engagement from that of Kim Dae-jung: ““The name of the policy is said to have been derived from an Aesopian fable. There may be a suspicion on the part of people in the North Korean regime that the policy is actually a device to bring about changes in their system, undermining its foundation…In this vein I have argued from the very beginning that the word “sunshine” should be divested of its Aesopian implication and, instead, find its origin and inspiration from a phrase in the Bible according to which it is argued that sunshine benefits everybody regardless of whether one is “right” or “wrong.” Also according to an interpretation of li-zeh in I Ching, the sun is described as “shining in the sky cherishes, enriches and nurtures every creature on earth.”

Second, and more importantly, the Sunshine Policy was predicated on an assumption that if North Korea could achieve a certain level of economic development through exchanges with the South, then the time might be right for both sides to enter into a political arrangement to have a loose kind of unity on the peninsula. Unification is ultimately to come through upgrading the extent of this political unity step by step… Kim Dae-jung made the strategic nature of the Sunshine Policy clear…”

In short, Ra sees the conflict in basic cognitive terms, takes unification—even gradual unification—off the table, and instead aims for peaceful coexistence. He concludes his essay by disparaging liberal democracy and market economics and oddly, holding forth North Korea as a potential paragon of environmentally sustainable development: “Green development is now the talk of the world, particularly of the first world. However, I am skeptical that there can be any noticeable progress in the near future among countries that practice market economics together with liberal democracy. Any achievement in one area will be offset by a necessity in the other… The North Korean system, however, seems to be well suited to meet the challenge…there is a good chance that it will emerge in a decade or two at the top level of the world in terms of green development and also as a model of sustainability.”

The answer to the question of which of these conceptions of engagement—as a means or as an end—prevails in the coming years, will have a profound impact on not only the nature of North-South relations, and their respective relations with the US, but on North and South Korea themselves.

The engagement-for-engagement’s-sake argument is sometimes put like this: conflicts often emerge when actors are “humiliated” and seek revenge or lash out as a result. So by giving North Korea the status and prestige that it desperately desires, the likelihood of conflict is decreased.  “Engagement” is reassurance that turns down the temperature and permits peaceful coexistence. This strikes me as the very definition of “appeasement.”

Neville Chamberlain managed to give appeasement a bad name, but it is not necessarily a bad policy. For example, if one can imagine situations in which one simply needs to get past some kind of threshold and then the sources of conflict begin to attenuate (“if we can just get through this episode then (for whatever reason) things will change…”) then appeasement may make sense. More broadly if the benefits, appropriately calculated, outweigh the costs by a greater margin than any other available option then it would be advisable. (For Chamberlain’s position to make sense, he was presumably motivated by the “if we can just get through this episode then (for whatever reason) things will change…” argument, or recognizing the true threat, was simply using it as a stalling tactic to prepare for a bigger confrontation.  If it was the former, he gravely miscalculated.  If the latter….time to call Winston.)

So while I am open to persuasion, I remain to be convinced in the case at hand. What I don’t see in the Roh-Ra line, and the similar writings of some progressive commentators, is a turning point in the behavior of the North Korean regime which would make hand-outs justifiable appeasement, and not just self-destructive enablement of a hostile regime.  I suppose that the argument would be that the North Koreans only want the nuclear weapons capability for deterrent purposes, so what’s the harm? The issue then becomes the one identified at the outset, namely US proliferation concerns.  I have now had separate public discussions with two American analysts who took the position that a bomb going off in Chicago would be OK, since we could forensically trace it back to North Korea ex post. (In fairness, one had the sense to do the backwardization argument: this knowledge of ex post determination of culpability would deter the North Koreans from proliferating in the first place; perhaps the other would sign on to this argument as well.) I suspect that most people are sufficiently risk averse that they don’t find this position persuasive.  I know I don’t.