Seoul Shrugs

Why South Korea won’t abandon its sunshine policy, even after the North’s nuke test.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun (left) and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao 

North Korea’s alleged nuclear test has galvanized the U.N. Security Council into punishing the recalcitrant regime. President Bush declared, “This action by the United Nations, which was swift and tough, says that we are united in our determination to see to it that the Korea Peninsula is nuclear-weapons-free.”

But Bush may be suffering from a severe case of wishful thinking. Analysts are already predicting that the compromise sanctions will not be effective. The garrisoned state thrives on isolation and has a record of becoming even more defiant when pressured. South Korea understands this and prefers a long-term solution that gradually coaxes Pyongyang out of seclusion. Seoul believes that genuine dialogue and confidence-building measures are needed, but the Bush administration has refused to talk to North Korea directly. In the week since North Korea’s alleged underground test, commentators have focused on the role of the United States and China in solving the crisis—but what do South Koreans want, and what can their government do to achieve those policy aims?

China and South Korea have long been the North’s biggest benefactors. Although China exercises the most leverage over North Korea, its influence is limited by both practicality and policy, especially concern that refugees will flood across the border if the Pyongyang regime falls. South Korea, a treaty ally of the United States with a flourishing democracy and the world’s 11th-largest economy, also dreads instability but longs for reunification with the North. Seoul would bear the enormous cost—one estimate puts it at $600 billion—of a sudden merger, and even if resolution stops short of reunification, the South would pick up a big chunk of the tab for whatever concessions eventually settle the nuclear crisis. Beyond finances, the South has most to lose—an internecine war would wreck the peninsula and result in huge loss of life.

Since President Bush came to power in 2001, the South Korean-U.S. defense alliance has frayed. The Pentagon and Congress have increasingly come to see South Korea as a reluctant and ungrateful ally that no longer automatically heeds the United States’ wishes, and rising anti-American sentiment on the peninsula certainly hasn’t helped.

Although the latest North Korean move has forced South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun’s government to review its engagement with the North and to cooperate with the United States, Seoul will not abandon its “sunshine policy” altogether. “The nuclear test will bring the United States and South Korea closer. However, I don’t know how far … it will go. In spite of the test, the Roh government will continue to look for excuses to maintain at least some transactions with Pyongyang,” said Paik Jinhyun, associate dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University. He added, “Early polls taken after the test showed that … a sizable number of Koreans attributed what happened to the Bush administration’s refusal to talk with North Korea rather than Kim Jong-il’s nuclear ambition.”

Indeed, after the initial shock and alarm, South Koreans’ No. 1 priority was the economy. “All my friends are talking about their stock prices taking a hit and how there will be capital flight from foreign investors,” said Kim Choung Ja, who lives just south of Seoul. On the day of the test, the Seoul stock market took a dive, though it started to recover the next day. “South Koreans are still taking trips to Mount Geumgang [in North Korea] and life goes on.” Kim also blamed the United States for having divided Korea more than 50 years ago without taking the nation’s wishes into account. In essence, she thinks the United States brought the North Korean nuclear pest upon itself and the world.

One reaction typical of young South Koreans came from Kim Min Jeong, a teacher at a Seoul language school who focused on the injustice of the balance of power: “I was quite surprised that North Korea really tested the nuclear bomb. But all the superpowers have nuclear weapons, so why not North Korea? Because Kim is a maniac? It doesn’t make sense. All of them must stop developing nuclear weapons, not just North Korea. I think it’s a more of a threat to greedy superpowers than to poor South Korea.”

South Korea’s top priority is to prevent war at any cost. The memory of devastation from the fighting during the Korean War between 1950 and 1953 lingers, especially for the 600,000 to 1.5 million people in the South who have family members in the North. These divided families plead with the South Korean government to do whatever it takes so that they can see aging relatives before it’s too late. The South Korean government is sympathetic and also has political motivation to comply, since the elderly go to the polls in large numbers. Another big worry—though it is rarely discussed openly—is that North Korea will become a puppet state of China. All this drives South Korea to provide aid to the North to match Chinese largess and to keep quiet about human rights violations so as not to provoke Pyongyang.

Kim Jong-il isn’t going away anytime soon, and he won’t fall in line just because Bush is acting tough. Seoul’s fate depends on the outcome of the superpower jostling, and while President Roh must realize that continued appeasement weakens the South’s leverage over Kim, he has no real alternative in the short term.