The Sunshine Policy of engagement between the two Koreas ran for a decade until 2008, won the Noble Prize for its originator, and proved to be dismal failure.
Peaceful engagement, dialogue and dollops of aid did little to alleviate the suffering caused by the cruelties of the Kim dynasty, let alone thwart their chemical and nuclear weapons projects.
Yet now the policy is on the point of revival, this time under a man named Moon. The election of liberal lawyer Moon Jae-in as South Korea’s president this week ends almost a decade of conservative government.
The election result was widely predicted. Moon’s impeached predecessor is behind bars awaiting trial for abuse of power and bribery, forced out by mass protests. The people of South Korea, especially disgruntled younger voters who backed their new leader in big numbers, want change in a political system corroded by corruption and an economy that faltered after decades of remarkable growth.
Moon promises to clean up politics, create jobs for young people and promote a fairer society. In a highly symbolic move, he has vowed to move the presidential office from the grandiose Blue House into drab offices in the central Gwanghwamun district, where the candlelit protests took place. He talks boldly of “regime change” in his own country.
But global attention will focus on one issue: how Moon handles the malevolent regime sitting just 35 miles from Seoul. This peninsula dangling beneath China is the planet’s hottest spot with five of the world’s biggest armies eyeing each other warily – yet this has not stopped Donald Trump, the United States president, from ramping up pressure on Kim Jong-Un amid fears the North Korean leader is preparing his sixth nuclear test.
Moon’s revival of the Sunshine Policy directly contradicts Trump’s belligerent approach. This son of North Korean refugees, a 64-year-old veteran of liberal politics, sees sanctions as a tactic to bring Kim back to the negotiating table, believes revived economic ties can reduce tensions and is furious over the accelerated installation of new US missile defence systems, which he had pledged to review.
Trump sees sanctions very differently: as a way to ratchet up “maximum pressure” until the North agrees to end its nuclear weapons project. His Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says talks can not even begin until Kim has handed over his arms, refusing to rule out military options despite fears of explosive conflagration. They are determined to stop development of missiles that can reach US shores, something that might be less than five years away.
Moon has said he will fly to Pyongyang if it will help bring “lasting peace” to the peninsular, where the two Koreas remain technically at war – even if the fighting stopped more than six decades ago. The thin-skinned US president, however, would not be pleased to see a South Korean leader break ranks by embracing the dynastic dictatorship over the border. This would strengthen China’s hand in its desire for regional stability and resistance to reunification. Who knows how Trump would respond?
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system underscores the disagreement. More than half of South Koreans do not want it – there were frequent little protests when I was staying in Seoul for three weeks recently – yet Trump stupidly waded in before the election by telling Seoul to fund the $1bn US system. Pyongyang rages with its usual paranoid fury against the shield. And China has encouraged boycotts of South Korean goods and services in protest at a system it fears is intended to counter its own weaponry.
Yet for all his childish tweeting, dodgy tactics and tetchy outbursts, Trump is right to turn the screw on China and its client state North Korea. Obviously war would be catastrophic and should be avoided if at all possible. But real solutions will come from a combination of tough sanctions and diplomatic pressure on China – and it is arguable Trump’s volatile nature makes it more likely the cautious leaders in Beijing will do something.
The Sunshine Policy sounds sensible but adds up to nothing more than appeasement of the world’s cruellest state. All it does is ensure the regime’s survival for a little bit longer. We have already seen it fail to cast light into the planet’s darkest corner, a place where an enslaved population of 25m people live in fear that one slip, one false move, one wrong word can lead to three generations being thrown into crushing forced labour camps.
North Korea is not a normal regime that seeks international approval, as shown by the recent assassination of a rival to the throne using banned chemical agents. Kim Jong-un has not once visited a foreign state since taking power in 2011; it is significant he has not been to China since this indicates concern over his volatile nature and elimination of senior figures friendly to Beijing. So how does a little aid or a few factories challenge this rigid one-party state that controls every aspect of life? Indeed, it is beyond belief that British taxes are spent teaching officials of this vile regime to learn English under our own aid programme.
One defector, a former member of the North Korean special forces, told me last month how senior officers boasted that during previous negotiations over a nuclear deal they were developing weapons programmes and drawing up plans for “revenge and war”.
Others told me horror stories of lives shattered by rape, torture and starvation in a state run for only one purpose: to deify, pamper and prop up an omnipotent ruler. And Kim Jong-Un saw in Libya what happens to dictators who give up weapons of mass destruction.
The “Sunshine president” Kim Dae-Jung won many plaudits, including the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize, for his warmth towards Kim’s father. Yet Kim il-Sung was an ogre who sent his chef to fetch caviar from Iran and fine tuna from Japan while up to two million fellow citizens died in terrible famine. This same repellent ruler was bribed with aid and, it later emerged, huge sums secretly paid to lubricate the peace process. This helped keep the regime going after support dried up from the Soviet Union.
If there is one thing slowly challenging North Korea it is information, aided by the digital revolution and seeping through the walls, especially to the moneyed elites. Smuggling routes established during the famine and maintained by brave defectors are used to send in films, documents, data and human rights information on memory sticks and sim cards. The special forces operative I spoke to realised he had been fed lies from birth when he went to university and saw Saving Private Ryan, showing that “evil” Americans were decent people and their troops believed in brotherhood. I have heard similar stories from several others.
North Korea has the world’s only active nuclear test site, deep in Mount Mantap. It was built by political prisoners forced to dig tunnels and clear up contaminated zones. One former gulag guard told me he drove some there that never returned, saying they were among thousands who must have died to further Kim’s ambitions. Meanwhile the Sunshine Policy was being prepared with secret payments to a government the United Nations now believes should face charges of crimes against humanity. The first nuclear test was carried out in 2006, even as the policy still shone down on Pyongyang.
Now a new South Korean president thinks the arm of friendship and talks can alter the path of the bloodstained Kim regime. Moon rightly talks of reform in Seoul after his nation’s recent political turbulence and much of what he says makes sense on the domestic front if he can deliver on his promises. But he needs to remember one key fact: the most pressing need for regime change is in Pyongyang, not Seoul.