Fri, May 12, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Moon Jae-in likely to revive South Korea’s ‘Sunshine Policy’

By Yoon Young-kwan

Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea has just been elected South Korea’s new president. This is the second conservative-to-liberal transition of power in the country’s democratic history.

It began unexpectedly in October last year with the eruption of a corruption scandal involving then-president Park Geun-hye, culminating in her impeachment and removal from office earlier this year. Although Park’s ouster was painful, it also demonstrated the resilience of South Korea’s democracy.

Moon takes office at a time of heightened tensions with North Korea. To understand what kind of policy he will pursue requires familiarity with liberal foreign-policy thinking in South Korea since the 1998 to 2003 presidency of Kim Dae-jung.

Kim had watched the Cold War come to a peaceful end in Europe, and he wanted to bring his own country’s ongoing confrontation with the communist North to a similarly nonviolent conclusion. So he pursued direct engagement with North Korea, and his “Sunshine Policy” was taken up by his successor, Roh Moo-hyun.

Before he died in 2009, Roh — under whom I served as foreign minister — was a political mentor and close friend to Moon.

German reunification, preceded by West Germany’s policy of direct engagement, or Ostpolitik, with East Germany in the last decades of the Cold War, was a source of profound inspiration for Kim.

Then-German chancellor Willy Brandt began pursuing Ostpolitik in earnest in the 1970s, and Helmut Kohl maintained the policy after he came to power in 1982.

Although Ostpolitik could not change the East German regime’s nature, it did make East Germany heavily dependent on West Germany, and gave Kohl significant political leverage during the reunification process.

Of course, most Korean liberals recognize that North Korea is not East Germany, which never threatened West Germany or the US with nuclear weapons.

However, Moon and his supporters nonetheless find it regrettable that conservative South Korean presidents since Lee Myung-bak did not maintain the Sunshine Policy, as Kohl had done with Ostpolitik.

If they had, North Korea might have become more dependent on South Korea than on China, in which case US and South Korean leaders would not have to plead constantly with China to rein in the North Korean regime.

South Korea’s liberals also recognize that the strategic situation has changed significantly since the Kim and early Roh eras, when North Korea had not yet become a de facto nuclear state.

To realize his liberal dream of national unification, Moon is going to have to confront a much larger challenge than anything his predecessors faced.

Moon will still pursue his dream, but he will do so prudently, and with an eye toward geopolitical realities.

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, he made it clear that he sees South Korea’s alliance with the US as the bedrock of its diplomacy, and promised not to begin talks with North Korea without first consulting the US.

However, beyond formal talks, he could also try to engage with the North by reviving inter-Korean cooperation on health or environmental issues, which fall outside the scope of international sanctions.

Over the last nine years, conservative presidents — especially Park — cut all contacts with North Korea to try to push it toward denuclearization. South Korean liberals argue that this policy compromised the national goal of peaceful reunification, by turning it into an empty slogan.

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