Kim Dae-jung fought for an elusive dream
By Donald Kirk
WASHINGTON - Kim Dae-jung leaves a legacy of controversy over his "Sunshine"
policy towards North Korea that is likely to go on dividing Americans and South
Koreans as surely as it did during his presidency.
Kim, president from 1998 to 2003, died on Tuesday at the age of 85. Despite a
long series of illnesses he died still hoping United States President Barack
Obama would pick up where former president Bill Clinton had left off at the end
of 2000. That is, by offering North Korea sweeping concessions in return for it
ending its nuclear-weapons program.
Before hospitalized last month with pneumonia, he had blamed Clinton's
successor, George W Bush, for having undermined his
"Sunshine" policy. Despite Bush in later years reversing the hard line he had
taken towards North Korea in his first term.
Both Obama and Clinton were unstinting in their praise of former president Kim
after his death. Clinton earlier this month met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il
in Pyongyang before returning with the two American journalists who had been
held there for 140 days after they were caught filming on the Tumen River
border with China.
There was, however, a crucial difference in their statements.
Obama praised Kim for having "risked his life to build and lead a political
movement that played a crucial role in establishing a dynamic democratic system
in the Republic of Korea," that is, South Korea. Those words were a tribute to
the years in which Kim, as a dissident battling military-led regimes, was
jailed, placed under house arrest and the target of multiple assassination
Unlike Clinton, however, Obama did not touch on Kim's "Sunshine" policy of
reconciliation with North Korea, alluding only to "his tireless efforts to
promote peace on the Korean Peninsula".
It was up to Clinton to say that "his 'Sunshine' policy offered more hope for
lasting peace than at any time since the Korean War" - an allusion to the hopes
raised in October 2000 when Clinton's secretary of state Madeleine Albright met
Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang amid hopes Clinton himself would go there.
This took place before the recount of Florida votes in the 2000 US presidential
election gave Bush the presidency over Clinton's vice president, Al Gore.
Clinton, moreover, went a significant step further, saying that "Hillary and I
will miss our good friend" - a remark that placed Obama's Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton on the side of Kim's "Sunshine" policy whether she liked it or
Kim Dae-jung could not have asked for kinder words, considering the hopes he
placed in Obama to bring about reconciliation with North Korea. In one of his
last public addresses, before the Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club earlier
this year, he recommended that Obama "assure North Korea of its security and
its integration into the world economy and also promise normalized diplomatic
ties with North Korea".
He recommended giving North Korea "what they need" in return for "North Korea's
agreement on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, including the
complete abandonment of its nuclear program, abandonment of long-range missiles
and establishment of a durable peace structure on the Korean Peninsula".
The way to achieve that goal, he said, would be "through a [formal] declaration
of the end of the Korean War [in 1953], arms control and a peace treaty" - all
central North Korean demands that the Obama administration has avoided
answering while blasting the North first for firing a long-range missile on
April 5 and then for conducting its second underground test of a nuclear device
on May 25.
Clinton in his meeting with Obama is assumed to have passed on assurances from
Kim Jong-il that he would like nothing better than dialogue - that is, two-way
dialogue with the US, not the six-party talks to which North Korea has refused
to return. Kim Jong-il's stance appears to have softened while North Korea
suffers from ever-growing food shortages. Kim, who has reportedly suffered from
a stroke and also has diabetes, is likely concerned about passing the mantle of
power, which most analysts believe will be to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un.
Kim Dae-jung expressed the hope that Clinton would pass on the baton to Obama,
reviving the high hopes of nine years ago after when his five-year presidency
reached its spectacular height in June 2000 with the first-ever inter-Korean
There Kim Jong-il hosted him in an atmosphere of confidence that the
half-century of war and confrontation between the two Koreas was nearing an
end. In a joint declaration the two Kims agreed to resolve "humanitarian"
issues, reopen borders and unite families. Six months later, Kim Dae-jung won
the Nobel Peace Prize.
Soon enough, however, the hopes engendered by the summit were shattered. Like
every other attempt at rapprochement, the promises of the declaration were
Family visits were stilted and brief. Only 16,000 members of divided families,
among several hundred thousand still alive all these years after the Korean
War, ever saw each other. There are still no mail or telephone privileges.
Visits to North Korea, when the North chooses to allow them, are tightly
controlled and monitored.
The industrial complex at Kaesong and the tourist zone at Mount Kumkang still
seem to open and close at Pyongyang's will. Above all, North Korea refuses to
give up its nuclear weapons and missile programs, to scale down its 1.1-
million man military establishment, to pull back forces ranged above the
demilitarized zone that still divides the two Koreas or to stop horrific
How could Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine" policy of reconciliation have been such a
disappointment? For a decade, during his presidency and then that of his
successor, Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea pumped hundreds of thousands of tons of
fertilizer and food into North Korea every year.
Neither Kim nor Roh asked anything in return other than expressions of goodwill
and signs of cooperation in the form of trade and visits. Neither of them had a
clue that North Korea all the while was forging ahead with a program for
developing nuclear weapons with highly enriched uranium. This was in blatant
violation of an agreement reached with the US at Geneva in 1994 under which the
North made a show of shutting down the nuclear complex where it was producing
nuclear devices with plutonium at their core.
Kim Dae-jung never abandoned the "Sunshine" policy, even after North Korea in
October 2002 acknowledged the existence of the uranium program when pressed by
a visiting US delegation led by James Kelly, then US assistant secretary of
state for East Asia.
Instead Kim Dae-jung strove to persuade George W Bush throughout the Bush
presidency to give up the supposedly "hardline" policy in which Bush called for
"verification" of any claim made by Kim Jong-il. By the time Kim Dae-jung
stepped down in February 2003, the Geneva agreement, which called for
construction of twin light-water nuclear energy reactors to help fulfill North
Korea's energy needs while the North gave up its nukes, was in tatters.
The collapse of the Geneva agreement was not the only disillusionment. Kim
Dae-jung was revealed to have sanctified the transfer of $500 million to North
Korea to persuade Kim Jong-il to agree to the summit in the first place. The
question in the aftermath of that revelation was the extent to which the funds
not only propped up Kim Jong-il's regime but helped to fund his 1.1-million-man
military establishment - and pay for the nuclear program.
The "Sunshine" policy endured through the presidency of Roh Moo-hyun, but South
Koreans tired of a costly policy of appeasement that seemed to necessitate
constant concessions. In December 2007, a conservative, Lee Myung-bak, a former
top executive of the Hyundai empire, defeated another leftist by a lopsided
majority. South Koreans wanted something in return for the forgiveness their
governments had shown for North Korea's broken promises. "Sunshine" faded into
a sunset in which North Korea called Lee a "traitor" and "lackey" of the United
There was an incredible paradox in Lee's election. The Bush administration by
then had shifted course. Christopher Hill, succeeding Kelly as US nuclear
envoy, worked out deals in six-party talks at which North Korea agreed to
specific plans for disabling and dismantling its nukes. Kim Dae-jung accused
Bush of having delayed reconciliation by his previous policies. Roh Moo-hyun,
visiting Pyongyang to see Kim Jong-il in October 2007, appeared to have come to
terms on plans for rebuilding the country's infrastructure, including ports and
All the agreements for North Korea to give its nuclear program, however, were
forgotten. North Korea, furious about Lee's firm policy and his refusal to hand
out food and fertilizer for nothing, loudly renounced them.
"Sunshine" now appears to have been a mirage. The Obama administration, through
Secretary of State Clinton, is instead battling for the enforcement of United
Nations sanctions and stronger measures if needed, as the only response to a
dictatorship that exists to perpetuate its harsh rule. This is a strategy that
Kim Dae-jung would have dismissed - as surely as he would have loved Bill
Clinton's praise for "Sunshine".
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.