Kim Dae Jung: The Sunshine Policy and US-South Korea Relations

While relations between the North and South had remained tense for decades, with only a few exceptions, Kim Dae Jung made the thawing of relations a priority, from a traditionally liberal idealist perspective. In his own writing in 1994 for the journal Foreign Affairs, Kim wrote:

Today, we must start with a rebirth of democracy that promotes freedom, prosperity, and justice both within each country and among nations, including the less-developed countries: a global democracy.[1]

For Kim, a liberal standpoint in which the South treated the North as a potential ally was more beneficial for the South. By working to cooperate with the North, Kim hoped to avert tension which could escalate into war. He believed that a realist approach, in which the South treated the North as a threat, would only increase the possibility of an outbreak of violence on the peninsula. Since Kim’s long-term goal was the peaceful reunification of the two Koreas, a policy of carrots was more sustainable than one of sticks. While reunification seemed a long way off, Kim understood that any real peace treaty or talks had to begin with improved ties between the two states.[2]

Some progress had been made previously in a series of bilateral talks from 1988 to 1992, culminating in two agreements: the “Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation between the South and the North,” and the “Joint declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” These agreements solidified the two Koreas’ resolve to move towards sustainable peace, and also included a stipulation that the North would not work on a nuclear program.[3] Unfortunately, while the spirit of the agreements was promising, in practice very little respect was given to their content.

Kim Dae Jung made it a priority to actively work towards realizing the goals outlined in the 1992 agreements. As a result of his convictions, he crafted the Sunshine Policy. The Policy acted as a kind of Korean detente, easing tensions and bringing the two states closer to reconciliation. According to Samuel S. Kim, “The twin pillars of the policy were the separation of politics from economics and the use of the principle of flexible reciprocity.”[3] In practice, these pillars translated into giving aid and foodstuffs to the North in exchange for family reunions, and the opening of tourism across the border to Mt. Kumgang in the North, as well as cooperation on work at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. From 1998 until 2009, the South sent hundreds of millions of US dollars’ worth of aid,[5] and the tourism and family reunions helped Korean civilians feel the benefits of relaxed relations to some extent.[6]

After two years of relative success in implementing the Sunshine Policy, the two governments met for an historic inter-Korean summit in June of 2000. Memorably, Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il even embraced in front of television cameras. At the summit, the two recognized one another’s legitimacy, worked out economic agreements, and put aside political tensions. Reunification was even mentioned, though as an eventual future possibility for “posterity to settle slowly in the future,” as Kim Jong Il said at the time.[7] In general, the Kim Dae Jung Presidency was characterized by a liberal take on foreign policy, which emphasized the absolute gains possible through mutual cooperation and trust. For his historic work towards peaceful cooperation and improved relations with the North, Kim Dae Jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in the year 2000.[8]

The South-and its allies, at least in rhetoric-imagines that the slow reintegration of the North, after a series of economic reforms, may be a possibility worth preparing for and encouraging. This helps to explain the South’s relatively Kantian attitude of friendship towards the North despite the North’s occasional treatment of the South as a Hobbesian enemy. For the South, opening dialogue and trade with the North can help pave the path towards sustainable peace. For example, the Korean Development Institute has stated that, “inter-Korean trade is certainly a catalyst for encouraging various inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation, a prerequisite to the ultimate goal of reunification and creating an economic community in the Korean peninsula.”[9]

Not long after the inter-Korean meeting in 2000, however, relations between the US and North Korea began to sour, and tension in the region grew. Kim’s liberal position towards the North may have eased tensions on the peninsula, but it simultaneously increased tension with the US as the Bush Administration replaced the Clinton Administration. Under Clinton’s presidency, the White House had tacitly supported the Sunshine Policy, even as some hard-liners in Congress opposed the approach as too idealistic and unrealistic in dealing with a potential nuclear state. With the beginning of the Bush Administration, the hard-line neo-realists in Congress were represented within the White House as well. In the 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush declared the North part of an “Axis of Evil.”[10] Evidence suggests that the North was both unlikely and unwilling to take actual threatening action against the United States at this point. From a constructivist standpoint, however, it is easy to understand how President Bush could benefit from implying that North Korea was a legitimate threat. In order to justify pursing the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war, it was necessary for the Administration to convince the US public that there were very real threats to the American way of life. Moreover, from a realist standpoint, South Korean bases provided an important vantage point in the Pacific for the US to use as a transport hub on the way to Afghanistan.

From a neo-liberal point of view, the war in Afghanistan (and any possible future engagement with Iraq, Iran, or North Korea) was viewed as necessary to protect US interests and to promote US values abroad in order to establish democracies-which the US could argue would prevent future war. It was this position which President Bush and his advisors openly espoused, along with neo-liberal think tanks like the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). In this way, the Bush Doctrine validated pre-emptive war by claiming that establishing democracies in these countries could lead to a possible future kind of Kantian perpetual peace- but in order to achieve peace there first had to be war. This flawed logic- of war being a necessary pre-condition for peace-continued to shape US foreign policy, towards North Korea and elsewhere, throughout the first term of Bush’s presidency. After the mid-term elections in 2006, in which the Democrats gained a majority in the US Congress, the White House was unable to pursue its policies as freely as it had in the first term. Furthermore, the election of Democrats signified the unpopularity of the Bush Doctrine among US citizens. Thus, while the Bush Presidency continued to be characterized by neo-liberal rhetoric, it became less possible for the government to actively pursue these policies as Congress was composed of more traditional liberal-idealists and, arguably, even some isolationists.

  • [1] Kim, “Is Culture Destiny? The Myth of Asia’s Anti-Democratic Values”, 4.
  • [2] Cho, “Collective Identity Formation on the Korean Peninsula: United States’Different North Korea Policies, Kim Dae-Jung’s Sunshine Policy, and UnitedStates-South Korea-North Korea Relations.”
  • [3] Kim, The Two Koreas and the Great Powers, 320.
  • [4] Kim, The Two Koreas and the Great Powers, 320.
  • [5] Cho, “Collective Identity Formation ...,” 2011; Kim, The Two Koreas and theGreat Powers, 321.
  • [6] Kim, The Two Koreas and the Great Powers, 325-326.
  • [7] Kim, The Two Koreas and the Great Powers, 321.
  • [8] Nobel Prize Website, 2011.
  • [9] Koh, Kim and Lee, “Summary: Analysis of Inter-Korean Trade: StructuralChanges and Policy Implications.”
  • [10] Choe, “South Korea to Send...,” 2010.
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