Korea: The Politics of the Peninsula

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For Kim Jong-Il, to think that we can just give him carrots and be generous and he will change is a bit like trying to cure pneumonia with cough drops and vitamins. The intention might be earnest, but the application is misplaced. Nuclear weapons are the key to his long-term survival, and for his children as well.

Sung-Yoon Lee

Looking north across the DMZ [buck82 / Flickr]

A casual American observer would have noticed something interesting in the chorus of responses to North Korea’s glaring rocket tests on July 4th: Washington and Tokyo are defiant, pushing for sanctions from the Security Council. Moscow is quietly “disappointed,” but opposes sanctions. So does Beijing, which is publicly conciliatory, maintaining that China and North Korea are still “friendly neighbors.” But it’s South Korea — the 11th biggest economy in the world, the once-surging and still impressive “miracle,” the vibrant democracy that has lived under constant threat from their cousins to the north for 65 years — that gave the most muted response.

That’s because while our mental images of North Korea start with soldiers marching in Pyongyang and end with men in lab coats in underground bunkers (perhaps with starving peasants fleshing out the picture), the South has been steadily following its path of Sunshine Policy since 1998. With the ultimate goal of reunification — not today, the theory goes, but at some point — the South has been sending food, fertilizer, and loans, and last year made up about a third of North Korea’s total trade. (To put that last number in perspective: the $1 billion in trade, 33% of the North’s total, was only .4% of the South’s.) And the recent missile tests haven’t yet lead to a serious change in public opinion.

What would it take? Could any amount of North Korean saber-rattling — or any ratcheted-up American response — cast some shade on the Sunshine Policy? Is it too early to tell if the Sunshine Policy is the right policy, or are we about to see the closing of the opening?

And, finally, what about reunification itself? Can we begin to imagine not just what it would take to happen, but what it would actually be like?

Sung-Yoon Lee

Research associate, Korea Institute, Harvard University

David Kang

Associate Professor of Government, Dartmouth College

Adjunct Associate Professor, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College

Balbina Hwang

Senior Policy Analyst, Asian Studies Center, The Heritage Foundation

Extra Credit Reading

Gary Feuerberg, Can North Korea be Trusted? An interview with Sung-Yoon Lee, The Epoch Times, June 19, 2006.

Balbina Y. Hwang, A North Korean Missile Test: Implications for the U.S. and the Region, The Heritage Foundation, June 20, 2006.

Brian Lee, Seoul ponders limit on aid to the North, JoongAng Daily, July 7, 2006.

Oranckay, NK just lost its own game of strip poker, oranckay, July 5th, 2006.

Barry Briggs, Why Have They Launched?, North Korea zone, July 6, 2006.

Inter-Korean talks to go on as scheduled, The Korea Herald, July 7, 2006.

Timothy Savage, North Korea’s Giant Firecracker (or, how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Taepodong), Ohmy News, July 7, 2006.

David E. Sanger, Few Good Choices in North Korean Standoff, The New York Times, July 6, 2006.

Jodi, Overheard about North Korea, also “Please Take My Son”, The Asia Pages, July 6, 2006.

Pierre Rigoulot, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, Basic Books, September 2002.

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