First the life and now the death of South Korea’s activist turned President Kim Dae-Jung has opened the door to peace in Korea.
Kim Dae-Jung authored the “sunshine policy,” which resulted in the June 2000 landmark summit between the leaders of North and South Korea — the first meeting since the country was divided in 1945. For over ten years, the “sunshine policy” significantly reduced military tensions on the Korean peninsula, opened the door for thousands of family members in divided Korea to meet in powerful and tearful reunions, and gave birth to real hope that reunification was not only possible, but inevitable. In over six decades of division, the “sunshine policy” represents the most peaceful and productive stretch of relations between North and South Korea, and justifiably earned former President Kim the Nobel Peace Prize.
With the death of Kim Dae-Jung last Tuesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il sent a high-ranking delegation to Seoul to offer condolences and pay respects to the late former president, who had tirelessly advocated for cross-border reconciliation. This moment of national Korean unity through shared grief offers a new window for the Obama administration to improve relations with North Korea through diplomatic engagement.
In recent weeks, Pyongyang has shown a softening of tone with both South Korea and the U.S. On Monday, Kim Jong-Il expressed an interest in holding an inter-Korean summit between the two leaders. North Korea also recently announced that it will resume the operation of a cross-border cargo train and will lift travel restrictions from the South to the joint industrial zone in the North. Diplomatic overtures offered by the Obama team to North Korea earlier this month were also met with a warm reception. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s mission to the country secured the release of the two detained American reporters — Laura Ling and Euna Lee — who had crossed onto North Korean soil without permission. The visit was a global demonstration that U.S.-North Korea diplomacy has the potential to yield results.
Indeed, diplomacy has undeniably worked in the past. During the Clinton administration, a policy of engagement led to eight years of freezing Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and a moratorium on ballistic missile tests. While Clinton pursued a strategy that brought North Korea to the negotiating table, George Bush enacted a hard-line approach and ignored the previous administration’s diplomatic advances. North Korea responded by restarting its nuclear weapons program and launching its missiles. Whatever the critics of diplomacy say, no one can doubt that the North Korean nuclear program took a huge leap forward only after Washington stopped talking seriously with Pyongyang.
We are at a dangerous moment in relations with North Korea. President Obama appears to favor the same “tough guy” approach that Bush realized too late would not work. Obama’s position that total denuclearization must come as a precondition to normalizing relations will indefinitely stalemate negotiations, just as it did under Bush, and tension will continue to rise. Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, recently testified in Congress that if Pyongyang does not satisfy Washington’s outlined preconditions, the U.S. will “take defensive measures to bring significant pressure to bear for North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programs.” Last month, several U.S. Senators, led by Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, introduced legislation that would re-designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, reactivate additional economic sanctions, and increase support to an already bloated South Korean army.
A cornerstone of the Obama administration’s language around foreign policy has been to engage with states that are fundamentally different than the U.S. With North Korea’s recent softening of tone, let’s hope the Obama administration recognizes the need to change course with North Korea, and goes back to the future — the time is now to engage and establish a lasting peace treaty on the Korean peninsula.
Haeyoung Kim is a Fellow with the Korea Policy Institute.