Many are quick to blame North Korea's Kim Jong-un as the sole cause for heightened tensions between the Democratic People's Republic and South Korea. In fact, changes in leadership on both sides have contributed to today’s conflict on the Korean peninsula. Looking back to when relations between the two nations were slightly cooler holds some surprising insights.
What is known as the Sunshine Policy started in 1998, but was discontinued in 2008. Was it effective? Well, not enough for reunification, but enough to ease the tension between North and South Korea. The Sunshine Policy took a general approach to North/South relations by South Korea which emphasized cooperation and non-coercion.
There was very little contact between North and South between 1948 to 1998. Thanks to the South Korean Leader, Kim Dae Jung, who implemented Sunshine Policy in 1998, we saw an historic moment in Inter-Korean relations under the new policy.
The world held its breath when Kim stood on North Korea soil after crossing the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) on June 16, 1998. The policy was aimed at softening the North’s attitudes by providing humanitarian and economic aid with no strings attached.
As a result, a historic summit meeting between Kim Jong-iI and Kim Dae Jung was held in 2000 for the first time since the Korean War ended in 1953. People saw growth in cooperative business development between North and South, and they anticipated reuniting families separated during the war.
The opening of Mount Kumgang tourist region, one of the best-known mountains in North Korea, allowed South Korean visitors to the mountain before a shooting incident in 2008 which inevitably ended implementation of the Sunshine Policy.
President Roh Moo-hyun, Kim Dae Jung’s successor, also maintained warm relations between the two countries through his commitment to the Sunshine Policy. The Kaesong Industrial Park in 2002, a sign of economic ties between two Koreas, is part of Roh’s commitment to the Sunshine Policy. Under the Roh administration, a second land mark summit meeting was held in Pyongyang in October 2007.
Roh was the second South Korean president since the Korean War to have made the trip to North Korea. Of course, there were some uneasy moments throughout the lifespan of the policy; notably, when South Korea asked for a sector of family reunification which upset North Korea. After U.S. President George W. Bush called North Korea a part of the “Axis of Evils” in 2001, tensions surfaced again.
Overall, both Kim and Roh achieved improvements on relations with North Korea. It is no surprise that Kim won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for implementing the Sunshine Policy.
Where do we go from here? Why do changes in leadership matter? In 2008, Lee Myung-bak took office as the tenth president of South Korea. Lee’s foreign policy did not please North Korea, but the Bush administration supported it. Lee’s less open policies towards North Korea quickly cooled the warming relations between North and South.
Lee suspended humanitarian aid to North Korea by claiming that Sunshine Policy did not change North Korea’s attitudes, but that it had actually strengthened the communist regime. Lee’s hard line policy towards North Korea was more intensified by the reactivation of North Korea’s nuclear program and missile tests in 2009 and 2012.
The effectiveness of Sunshine Policy has been controversial among Lee’s supporters and his opponents. However, no one could deny the policy improved relations between the two Koreas and no other policy achieved so much in history.
Although there was hope that Lee’s new policies towards North Korea would eventually end following current president Park Geun-hye's election in 2013, a new young leader in North Korea, Kim Jong-un emerged at the end of 2011 before Park took office.
Park also had a vision similar to the Sunshine Policy of the early 2000s and she spoke about her dedication to improving relations with North Korea during the years before election. However, tensions between the two countries worsened by Kim Jong-un’s recent provocations against South Korea and the United States.
Tensions escalated after the UN broadened its sanctions against North Korea in response to Kim Jong-un’s long-range rocket test at the end of 2012 and by joint military exercises on the Korean peninsula. In February 2013, North Korea launched a third nuclear test and both the UN and the United States considered it a highly provocative act.
North Korea responded by attempting to cut off communications with South Korea and warned Seoul that it had entered “a state of war."
Although the Sunshine Policy gave hope to inter-Korean relations, and saw improvements over several years, changes in leadership in both countries reversed most of the progress that had been made.
Before Park could revamp the discontinued Sunshine agenda, North Korea made multiple brazen moves toward military escalation. Is there still hope of improving relations between North and South Korea? The answer is likely “No” on the face of current tensions. However, solutions to increased volatility have been few; the only hope is likely one that bears a similar resemblance to the Sunshine Policy of years past.