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    Korea
     Aug 20, 2009
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 attempts.

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 not.

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 summit.

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 meaningless.

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 human-rights abuses.

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 States.

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 railroads.

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.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Through the (North Korean) looking glass (Aug 18, '09)

South Korea's Sunshine policy strikes back
(May 7, '08)

From Sunshine to sunset (Oct 18, '06)


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