A Long & Winding Road: South Korea’s “Nordpolitik” (Part I)

Comrades, I’m confused. Nay, I am baffled. Flummoxed, even. And who better to share this confusionism with, in hope of enlightenment, than fellow-Korea watchers perusing 38 North?

The subject of my confusion can be simply stated: A year after Park Geun-hye took office as President of the Republic of Korea (ROK), I can’t for the life of me fathom what her policy towards North Korea really is. Her government has said many things and done rather fewer. But they don’t add up to a coherent whole. In fact, they seem to pull in contrary directions.

This is a serious charge, so I shall lay it out fully. That will require two articles. First up, we need to examine the various—very various—strategies towards the Northern regime that previous South Korean leaders had pursued. Our second article will look in detail at the past year, and in particular, how ‘trustpolitik’ jibes with Park’s growing emphasis on unification.

Grasping the Scorpion: Lessons from History

Scrutiny of current ROK policy on the North must begin by reviewing Seoul’s earlier efforts, for at least three reasons. One: People forget. (No, children, it did not all begin with sunshine.)

A second reason is that this long and winding road taken by her predecessors determined the starting point that Park Geun-hye faced a year ago. To be technical, it’s all path-dependent. The third reason is precedent and example. Almost 70 years after Korea was split in two, past policy can also function as a menu or a toolbox. Look back, try this… it just might work.

In that spirit, this first article briefly sketches the North Korea policies of South Korea’s eight former presidents to date who served full terms. (We omit the two hapless inter-regnal souls overthrown in 1961 and 1979-80, who had no time to establish a meaningful policy on anything.) Space here allows just the barest of summaries, riding roughshod over detail and nuance. For the full and fascinating granularity, head for the Wilson Center’s indispensable North Korea International Documentation Project (NKIDP): A treasure trove indeed, cited further below.

One more piece of small print upfront. For sure, dealing with the DPRK ain’t easy. The ROK knows that better than anyone; it goes with the territory. So any criticisms that follow are not meant to sound knowing or glib. It’s truly hard to know what works, or what’s right—which may not be the same—in handling those grimly wily Kims in Pyongyang. Still, whoever is in charge in Seoul has to make policy choices. My aim is simply to illuminate these, historically.

Syngman Rhee (1948-60): No Surrender

To begin at the beginning, in the early years after the peninsula’s forced partition, the existence of two Korean states was not taken for granted. In fact, no Koreans accepted the new situation; for all, putting Humpty back together again was the main priority. For Syngman Rhee as well as for Kim Il Sung, that meant reunification by force. Kim tried it, and his bloody gamble nearly paid off.

An ingrate Rhee thanked his US/UN rescuers by refusing to sign the 1953 Armistice, creating trouble for his successors. Recall too why the Northern Limit Line (NLL) is so named: at first, the problem was as much to stop Rhee thrusting northwards—his slogan was Pukchin tongil: March north for unification!—as to keep the Korean People’s Army (KPA) fleet at bay. (If you’re within reach of Washington, DC, NKIDP is holding what looks to be a fascinating seminar on the 1953-60 period on April 11.)

Park Chung-hee (1961-79): Grow Strong, Sniff Warily

For all of Rhee’s braggadocio, by the time the students turfed him out in 1960 South Korea was dangerously weaker than the North, whose economic take-off began first. When Park Chung-hee seized power a year later, his determination that the South too must industrialize quickly was driven as much by security as economic concerns. National power in every sense demanded this. You can deplore his methods, but he laid the foundations for today’s strong South Korea.

As the whole idea was to beat the North (and he did), not cosy up to it, Park like Rhee might never have entertained dialogue with Kim—who, after all, sent commandos to kill him in 1968—had global tectonic plates not shifted. Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 unsettled both Korean leaders, who didn’t trust what their respective big brothers might get up to behind their backs.

Cue the July 1972 Joint Declaration, and the desultory decade of Red Cross and other contacts which ensued. The two dogs warily sniffed each other, but reverted to barking and growling. (For more detail, see an earlier piece of mine and sources cited therein. For way more, see three collections of documents compiled by NKIDP listed here, plus an e-dossier.)

Chun Doo-hwan (1979-88): Creative Cunning

No one has a good word for Park’s epigone successor, the butcher of Gwangju; now revealed as a closet art-collector. Yet as I argued here in 2011, North-South dialogue on Chun’s watch has useful lessons, though it was brief (16 months) and nothing lasting came of it. His clever decision to accept a Northern aid offer wrong-footed Pyongyang, which never expected this and hurriedly had to deliver. That showed a creative flair rarely visible in Chun’s successors.

Second, this little man was big enough to let Rangoon go. Just a year after DPRK bombers blew up his entourage and nearly killed him, Chun didn’t even make them admit it, much less say sorry. Contrast Lee Myung-bak and now Park Geun-hye’s rigid insistence that the North must ‘fess up to sinking the Cheonan. Ain’t gonna happen, so why push it? Third, some of the 1985 specifics seem good ideas, worth trying again. In particular, talks between parliamentarians—1985 was the only time these have happened—might offer a more relaxed forum to exchange ideas than the usual pattern of tense action-oriented negotiations between executive bodies.

Fourth, back-channel diplomacy and continuity are vital. I’ll say it again: Park Chul-un—an ambitious Blue House secretary, once dubbed the ROK’s Kissinger but now forgotten—did a great job, for both Chun and his successor. It’s a crying shame that the two Koreas are no longer sensible enough to maintain such secret contacts. (Or are they…?)

Roh Tae-woo (1988-93): A More Successful Gorbachev

South Koreans also despise Chun’s fellow coup-maker, turned democrat. That is unfair to Roh Tae-woo, whom history will laud as the ROK’s Gorbachev—only more successful. No transition to democracy is easy: Just look around. Whatever his crimes, Roh saw the writing on the wall and brought this about, peacefully. That was a major and skillful accomplishment.

No less skilled was Roh’s Nordpolitik: a term modeled on Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik in West Germany, then reaching fruition in East Germany’s peaceful collapse and absorption. In the Korean context, this meant not just North Korea, but first seizing the moment of the collapse or mutation of communist regimes to lure Pyongyang’s sponsors into full relations. It was Roh who hooked and caught both of these big fish, hitherto implacably hostile: first Moscow, then Beijing. With 20/20 hindsight this may look inevitable, but it could all have been messy.

Roh’s watch also saw the first overt trade between North and South: tiny at first, but growing over time (if still exiguous compared to China-Taiwan trade, which started around the same time.) Finally, Roh oversaw the best inter-Korean accord yet, the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation, only for it to be scuppered by the emerging row over North Korea’s nuclear program. The moral? Be pragmatic, be flexible. Do business, regardless of politics. Put national interest before ideology. Think long-term.

Kim Young-sam (1993-98): No Summit, No Vision

Then things went downhill. Kim Young-sam had been a brave fighter for democracy, but in office, as the first civilian president in decades, was disappointing. His inattention to the economy led to financial crisis and near-sovereign default. And while it was bad luck that Kim Il Sung’s sudden death prevented what would have been the first North-South summit—oh, the might-have-beens!—his reaction needlessly worsened relations. What if, instead of putting ROK troops on high alert, Kim had sent condolences and invited himself to the funeral? Like Chun saying yes to aid, that would have neatly put Pyongyang on the back foot: advantage Seoul.

Kim’s era did see one case of creative diplomacy, though the credit was hardly his. The Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) has now sadly passed into history. Its forlorn website lives on, another of history’s if-onlys. But for a decade after 1995, this was a precious, unprecedented space where the Koreas learned to work together instead of against each other, even in areas as sensitive as nuclear safety. The time may have passed now, but at least two aspects of KEDO could surely have been emulated: its tightly specific focus and multilateral consortium structure. Imagine a “KADO” for agriculture, for instance.

Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003): Good Day, Sunshine

The recent past is more familiar, so we can be brief. When veteran dissident Kim Dae-jung finally and narrowly won the presidency in 1997 (his fourth attempt, having at first retired after his third failure: had he stuck to that, all this might never have happened), he did as he had long promised and tried a radically different approach. Engagement, dubbed ‘sunshine’ after an Aesop fable, separated economics from politics while bracketing the nuclear issue.

The Hyundai conglomerate’s northern-born founder Chung Ju-yung sank his millions into this new vision, which helped hugely: the North does like money after all. The sunshine policy’s results are well-known, if still contentious: the 2000 Pyongyang Summit, the Mount Kumgang and Kaesong joint ventures, and a raft of other accords, plans and projects. (For full details, see my regular quarterly updates written since 2000 for Pacific Forum-CSIS’s Comparative Connections.)

Roh Moo-hyun (2003-08): Selling the Farm?

Kim’s successor Roh essentially continued the sunshine policy, rebranded as peace and prosperity. I’ve argued here before that the  second inter-Korean summit in 2007 could have taken sunshine to the second level, moving from one-way, loss-leader generosity to win-win, mutual cooperation.

That’s still my view, despite recent politically-driven intel leaks in Seoul suggesting Roh was ready to give up the NLL. Sure, Roh had a big mouth. Yet the planned Haeju peace zone would obviously have changed the role of the NLL, so it’s absurd for Southern hawks to twist this into a touchstone of treachery. Space precludes a full airing, but this ongoing row shows vividly how divided South Koreans still are on how to handle the North. That is a political factor which every ROK leader must take into account.

Lee Myung-bak (2008-13): Full Steam Astern

Here again I’ve commented in some detail on these pages, more than once, on the vagaries of the most recent ROK ex-president’s Northern policy; so let me summarize rather than repeat.

Lee Myung-bak, in effect, reneged on the 2007 summit accord, insisting that Pyongyang must first give up its nukes if it wanted deeper economic links. A furious North sank the Cheonan in March 2010 (yes, I know the controversies, but that’s my call) and in November that year shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island. In reprisal for the former, in May 2010, Lee banned all inter-Korean trade and investment except the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), which kept going throughout these crises. The KIC’s exemption made nonsense of the ‘ban,’ but I, for one, am glad of it. In further illogic or illusion, Lee got excited about a the idea of a gas pipeline from Siberia and secretly sought a summit with Kim Jong Il, apparently believing the latter would surrender his nuclear weapons to be able to attend the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Seoul Really.

Sunshine was contentious, so maybe its opposite had to be tried; though bipartisanship would surely be better, were it feasible. The experiment was done: Did it work? Can it seriously be claimed that South Korea, or the region, or the world, are in a better place now than in 2008 when Lee put sunshine into eclipse? North Korea and its nukes remain unchecked, with the added wild card of a new leader. Meanwhile China rushed to fill the business vacuum left by South Korea’s virtual withdrawal from the DPRK. That caused much chagrin in Seoul, yet it was totally predictable. One might even say, and I have, that Lee has lost the North to China.

All in all, what Park Geun-hye inherited when she took office in February 2013 was a history of many twists and turns. What has she made of this legacy so far? And what are her plans for North Korea’s future? These crucial questions will be the subject of a second article coming soon.

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