Hope is again rising on the Korean peninsula. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un recently held a summit in the Demilitarized Zone that has divided the two states for 65 years. The meeting raises the prospect that this pointless and anachronistic conflict can finally be brought to an end, or at the very least, that the tensions now threatening global security and world financial markets can be reduced.
But it’s important to remember that we’ve been here already, 18 years ago. In 2000, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung traveled to Pyongyang for a much-publicized conference with Kim Jong Un’s dad, Kim Jong-il. The mission even helped the South’s Kim win a Nobel Peace Prize.
We know now that nothing meaningful came out of that summit. But it does offer some critical lessons as the world embarks on another round of engagement with Pyongyang — both for Moon, and for U.S. President Donald Trump, if and when he eventually meets with the North’s leader.
The 2000 summit was an outgrowth of what was known as the sunshine policy, and the logic behind it was sound enough: Decades of confrontation had achieved nothing but stalemate, so the idea was to foster economic exchange and dialogue instead. To that end, South Korea offered a torrent of humanitarian aid, opened a new industrial park in North Korea, and encouraged investment in a tourism project on a celebrated North Korean mountain.
All this achieved no tangible results. Pyongyang became no less threatening: A deadly naval clash erupted in 2002 and North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. Nor was there progress on disarming the tense border, improving the North’s abysmal treatment of its citizens or reforming its moribund economy. Yet the sunshine policy limped on for years — Kim’s successor in Seoul, Roh Moo-hyun, persisted with it, and also held a summit in Pyongyang in 2007. It wasn’t until a new, conservative president was elected later that year that the South finally started to change direction.
So what can be learned from this sad saga?
One crucial takeaway is simple: North Korea can’t be bought. There’s an enduring myth in Korean circles that Pyongyang is willing to “trade” its nuclear program for economic benefits; Kim Jong-un himself reinforced that impression in a speech last weekend. But if the sunshine policy demonstrated anything, it’s that economic aid alone won’t be sufficient. Instead, ending sanctions must be just one element of a much larger, harder-to-negotiate deal.
In making that deal, moreover, both sides must be specific. The joint declaration agreed to at the 2000 summit was long on lofty principles and short on specific measures to build confidence and reduce tensions. South Korea persisted in the belief that engagement in itself would entice Pyongyang into better behavior. That hope proved vain. Pyongyang must be made to cough up its nuclear program in advance of any benefits, or at least adhere to a staged, verifiable program to be fulfilled by both sides in unison.
Investment and aid might act as further encouragement. But it’s important to remember that Kim Jong-un will want as much as he can get up front, and can’t be trusted to follow through in return. Moon could be vulnerable to this trap. A long-time advocate of engagement — his approach has been dubbed “moonshine” — he has already approved some humanitarian aid for the North, in a reversal of his predecessor’s policy. To his credit, though, Moon has so far been prudent, reaching out to Pyongyang without giving up his hand. Trump, too, appears uncharacteristically cautious in this regard. The White House recently indicated that he wouldn’t loosen sanctions ahead of significant action by the North to dismantle its nuclear program.
But perhaps the biggest lesson from the sunshine policy is: Don’t have visions of grandeur. Kim Dae-jung allowed his starry-eyed quest to make history cloud his judgment, and North Korea was eager to take advantage. One analyst called his strategy “hubristic adventurism.” Trump is certainly susceptible to ego-driven decision making. He is already said to be dazzled by the prospect of resolving a serious security threat that bedeviled his predecessors.
Yet hard heads must prevail. The sunshine policy and the summits it produced make clear the dangers, rather than the opportunities, of engaging with North Korea. Kim Jong-un will be quick to capitalize on his opponents’ ardent desire for a deal. This time, they shouldn’t be too eager to let the sun shine in.
Michael Schuman is a journalist based in Beijing and author of “Confucius: And the World He Created.”
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