Seoul:  Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine" policy towards the North  is being tested by naval encounters. The US too may see its hope of better relations with Pyongyang following the Perry visit, in question.But China continues to exert pressure on the North.

by Philip Bowring

Seoul: President Kim Dae Jung's so called "sunshine" policy
towards North Korea is heading for a moment of truth. Are
relations to be defined by the naval incidents along the west
cost demarcation line which climaxed in the sinking of a North
Korean vessel? Or by the vice-ministerial talks to be held
between the two sides in Beijing on June 21? And how does all
this relate to the recent Pyongyang-initiated visit to the
North of President Clinton's envoy William Perry carrying with
him a sketch map for improving relations?

As usual with issues involving hermetically sealed North Korea
there are more questions than answers, and hence a tendency to
veer between alarmism and over-optimism. The latest incidents
may have been designed by the North to test President Kim's 
determination to stick with the "sunshine" policy, or to drive
a wedge between Seoul and Washington by being tough with one
and making friendly gestures to the other.  Conceivably too
military elements (on both sides) with scant faith in dialogue
have become trigger happy. Most of all though there is the
usual North tactic of raising the temperature at a critical
moment, as it has done in the past with nuclear and missile
threat diplomacy. Nothing comes free from Pyongyang. Even the
scheduled vice-ministerial meeting is costing the South
200,000 tons of fertiliser.

In neither Seoul nor Washington is patience inexhaustible.
Domestic politics does not allow it. President Kim is under 
fire from the opposition for being soft on the North and needs
to get some "sunshine" results by the end of the year if it is
not be be held against him in next April's National Assembly
elections. Meanwhile Mr Clinton needs some positive response,
however tiny, to Perry if a sceptical Congress is to continue
to vote money for engagement efforts. 

The South and the US both have plenty of carrots to dangle
before Pyongyang -- but no sticks. The North does however seem 
to be facing pressures from Beijing. The recent visit there of
Kim Yong-nam, head of the Peoples Assembly and nominally
second in the hierarchy, was the occasion for some lecturing
by Jiang Zemin about the importance of a improved relations. A
visit by Kim Jong Il is now expected later this year, which
would be the first the North's leader since his father Kim Il
Sung in 1991. He may not want to go but Beijing has been
reminding Pyongyang that "visit parity" may be necessary
following Kim Dae Jung's visit to China.

The extent of China's economic support for the North is
unclear, but it evidently large enough to carry clout far in
excess of the more symbolic deliveries of food, fuel and
fertiliser from the South and the US. China assumes the role
of benevolent overseer of stability, and has consciously
sought to be even-handed in dealings with the two Koreas.

It continues to develop its economic links with the South.
Meanwhile the South's much advertised rejection of membership
of the proposed US-Japan Theater Missile Defense (TMD) project
is music to Beijing's ears. (Not that TMD would be of much use
to the South given the proximity of the North's short range
missiles and artillery)

President Kim's "sunshine" initiative has found support from
China and Japan as well as a US made hesitant by the political
weakness of President Clinton. At home, the policy has
generally met with support, particularly among the younger
generation, on the basis of "give peace a chance". But if
progress means no more than a few token meeetings and family
reunions, President Kim will be vulnerable to the charge that
he is a naive idealist, helping prop up the Pyongyang regime
with money and goods but getting nothing tangible in return
except continued provocations.

Failure of "sunshine" would not be an international disaster.
For now it still has little downside risk. Failure would
simply reflect the immobility of a Pyongyang regime which
(bizarrely) still believes itself to be the embodiment of
Korean nationalism and (probably rightly) fears that any
opening to the South would be the beginning of the end of its
failed system.

But in the longer term failure of "Sunshine" could re-open
gaps between US and Seoul interests. US priorities are non-
proliferation of strategic arms, a quiet peninsula and a soft
landing for the North's regime. The South wants real movement
not just on weapons but on the economic cooperation issues
which would bring tangible benefits to the people in the
North, and be the start of a long road to re-unification.
Without progress there will eventually be pressure in the
South to use its industrial might to develop its own counter
to the North's continued missile and nuclear development.

For now, President Kim is likely to press ahead despite the
naval incidents. Even North-South prime ministerial talks
remain possible. Any talks are better than none. A North which
is no longer literally starving may be more emanble. The South
may have learned some lessons in humility from its own
economic crisis. But big power imposed stability rather than
real progress on North-South cooperation still seems the
dominant feature of the Korean peninsula.





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