CAPP Events: 2002

Archive: CAPP Events
2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002

Clouds Over South Korea's "Sunshine" Policy:
Dynamics of the Internal Debate

The Center for Asia Pacific Policy recently released the latest report, The South Korean Debate over Policies toward North Korea: Internal Dynamics, in a series about the debate in South Korea over the Kim administration's "sunshine" policy towards North Korea. While the first report, The South Korean Debate over Policies Toward North Korea: Issues and Implications, examined the content of the debate, the second report focuses on its internal dynamics - the major actors involved and their roles in shaping the debate's evolution.

As the first report explained, the sunshine policy has become a contentious core issue in a larger ideological and political struggle. The second report poses the question of how public consensus behind the government's efforts to engage North Korea evaporated so quickly in order for this to happen. Two widely held views blame a) either the United States and the Bush administration's "hard-line" policy towards North Korea, or b) the North Koreans, who, according to proponents of this view, failed to honor most of their commitments. The authors note that each view has some merit.

While the first view understates both the continuity in U.S. policies and lengths to which the Bush administration has gone to be supportive of South Korea, the Bush administration's distrustful tone gave Pyongyang yet another pretext for breaking off dialogue.

In the case of North Korea, the authors argue, the contributions are even clearer. Whatever its goals or intentions, Pyongyang's conduct communicated a fundamental unwillingness to come to terms with South Korea. Together with its demonstrative efforts to inflame social tensions in the South, this undermined the willingness of most South Koreans to explain away North Korean behavior.

Despite the importance of these two external actors, however, the fate of the sunshine policy has been heavily shaped by South Korea's own internal dynamics. The report lists the following contributing factors, among others:

  • The government's minority status. President Kim used his sunshine policy to improve both his personal political position and his minority party's electoral prospects. This approach riled his political opposition and politicized what had generally been considered a non-partisan issue.

  • The role of reciprocity. Support for government policies in any democratic society hinges on a public view that such policies are effective in advancing important national interests. Absent clear manifestations of North Korean reciprocity, the "payback" for South Korea's largesse became increasingly hard to demonstrate.

  • The approach to domestic critics. The President's confidence and conviction kept his policies focused and solidified his support among the left but also alienated many more in the middle of the political spectrum and narrowed the potential base for political consensus.

  • The war with the press. The Administration's attack on the media under the rubric of "reforming" the press stimulated a de facto allegiance between the press and opposition parties to prevent the government from achieving its objectives.

  • Lack of trust and willingness to compromise. South Korea's short experience with democratization has allowed little time for alternative approaches to the political rigidity and "winner take all" attitudes that have traditionally bedeviled Korean politics. Also, the government attempted to exploit internal discord in the opposition parties, which intensified distrust and weakened the opposition parties' willingness to compromise.

Ultimately, however, the authors argue that the story of how consensus evaporated so quickly is less about particular governmental "mistakes" than about the broader interactions among politicians, the press, and public opinion, with civic groups on both sides of an increasingly polarized citizenry serving as flag bearers in a larger political and ideological struggle. This struggle reflects both the continued hold of old, unresolved issues, as described in the first report, and the impact of South Korea's new process of democratization.

According to the authors, the bad news for government supporters is that engagement with North Korea has been dealt a significant blow. As the first report discussed, although North Korea's future behavior and the upcoming presidential election in South Korea are two wild cards, the likelihood is that South Korea will continue to be weighed down by unresolved issues from the past. Also, the tendency of some South Koreans to blame the United States for particular problems will persist, if not increase further.

Two new developments that have emerged in the past few months led the authors to add the following likely short-term implications of the debate: 1) exploring ways to ease military tensions will likely become more important as North-South relations sputter and greater attention is paid to problems caused by North Korea's conventional forces, and 2) dealing with potential crises, such as the one caused by an unraveling of the Agreed Framework or a continuation of North Korea's missile and weapons of mass destruction activities, will likely rise on the policy agenda.

Strong emphasis on the importance of the U.S.-ROK alliance and the need to work together to address such issues will thus be a continual requirement for U.S. policy for the coming period. So, too, will be a continued demonstration of U.S. sensitivity to South Korean concerns as Washington necessarily pursues its larger strategic interests.

About the Report:

This research was conducted under the auspices of the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy (CAPP). CAPP is part of RAND's National Security Research Division.

The focus of all three reports is on the period since March 1998, when Kim Dae Jung became the first leader of South Korea's political opposition ever to be elected president of the country, and on the major actors, interests, and goals influencing South Korean politics. The second report focuses on the internal dynamics of the debate over the so-called sunshine policy.

Initial fieldwork for the report was undertaken in July 2001, and a more focused field trip was conducted in December 2001. A final report in the fall of 2002 will integrate the findings of the first two reports and assess their longer-term implications for South Korean policies and U.S.-ROK relations.

These reports explicitly intend to neither praise nor criticize the Kim Dae Jung Administration's policies. Instead, they seek simply to better understand the sources of controversy over the government's policies and what their implications may be for the United States.

About the Authors:

Norman Levin is a Senior Analyst who specializes in U.S. national security policy and East Asian security issues.

Yong-Sup Han is a professor at Korea's National Defense University where he specializes in arms control and Korean security issues.