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Change Without Meaning: The South Korean Presidential Candidates’ North Korea Policy

On December 19, South Korean citizens will go to the polls to elect their next president. Like the United States, South Korea is suffering from economic stagnation, and similar to the U.S. presidential debates, the economy is overshadowing national security and other critical issues.

Official campaigning for South Korea’s presidential election began on November 27, and the two leading candidates have actively put forth their policy platforms and political visions. Missing from the discussions, however, are concrete policy plans to address North-South relations and wider East Asian stability. While both candidates have addressed the contentious Northern Limit Line (NLL), their coverage has been restricted to political attacks on the current Lee Myung-Bak administration, rather than offering real solutions to prevent clashes in the West Sea or a new North Korea policy.

The conservative New Frontier Party candidate Park Geun-hye has spoken about trust-building with North Korea, yet her stated policy remains very similar to the no-engagement stance taken by the current Lee Myung-bak administration. The liberal Democratic Unity Party candidate, Moon Jae-in, on the other hand, has spoken extensively about the need to return to a pro-engagement Sunshine Policy, favoring North-South co-existence and cooperation. While this policy direction is, on the surface, a refreshing change from Lee Myung-bak’s, it overlooks the significant flaws of the Sunshine Policy, prioritizing regional capitalist development while leaving political and security issues under U.S. control.

The policies proposed by both presidential hopefuls are fundamentally inadequate. The underlying political and security issues — such as increasing U.S. military power in the region and North Korea’s nuclear program — must be addressed before real and lasting changes in North-South relations can take place.

Anything but Lee

It is widely recognized that President Lee’s North Korea policy, known as “3000 Plan for Denuclearization and Opening of North Korea,” has failed to address North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Instead, his approach has simply put North-South relations on a downhill trajectory. Even a recent South Korean government think tank report referred to Lee’s policy as having “done nothing more than provide grounds for South Korea’s ridicule.”1

Park Geun-hye, the presidential candidate of Lee Myung-bak’s own New Frontier Party, has made a concerted effort to distance herself from the North Korea policies of President Lee and the two preceding liberal administrations. “All past North Korea policies, whether based on hard principles or tolerance,” Park says, “have failed to bring about meaningful change in North Korean society.”2 The Democratic Unity Party presidential nominee Moon Jae-in is even harsher in his criticism of Lee’s North Korea policies: “President Lee has retarded South-North relations through his lack of response to North Korea.”3

Park Geun-hye: More of the Same

To improve North-South  relations and unification efforts,  Park Geun-hye proposes a  “revival   and  development  of  the   ‘Ethnic-National   Community   Unification   Proposal'” (

4 This reunification proposal calls for mutual trust through reconciliation, cooperation and political integration based on the principle of ‘first peace, then peaceful unification.’ With elements similar to the process proposed by the Sunshine Policy (discussed below), Park’s initiative differs in its emphasis on mistrust and animosity between South and North Korea, which makes Park’s policy less of a departure from Lee Myung-bak’s, but rather an extension of it.

Park’s National Community Unification Proposal seeks to imitate Europe’s integration process in the aftermath of World War II. Specifically, Park’s Seoul Process mimics the Helsinki Process, set in motion by the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which aimed to bring an end to the Cold War and establish a new order in Europe. The theory behind the Helsinki Process was that cooperation in the areas of culture and economics would lead to political integration. This theory held that increased technical cooperation would allow for a new authority or system to govern exchanges, enabling more diverse areas of engagement to take root. The actual experience of European integration was very different, however, which raises several questions about the feasibility of Park’s unification proposal for Korea.

The first question is whether social-cultural and economic integration necessarily lead to political integration. In the 1950s, transnational cooperation regimes such as the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Nuclear Energy Agency were established — important cornerstones to building a European community. These economic and technical exchanges, however, did not automatically extend to cooperation in politics and security, largely due to the Cold War and issues surrounding national security. Europe’s political integration was less the result of economic, social-cultural and technical cooperation, and more due to agreements between countries that addressed specific foreign policy and security issues. In the case of Europe, while cooperation in these areas was important, it was not strong enough to reduce the countervailing individual national political and security interests. A separate process was in fact needed. The same may be said for the Korean Peninsula, where cooperation around culture and economics has failed to create the preconditions for political reconciliation. Furthermore, Park’s National Community Unification Proposal fails to delineate the conditions necessary to transition from the stage of reconciliation and compromise to a North-South coalition or national unification.

Secondly, how is the ‘national community’ (

Lastly, Park has repeatedly emphasized the importance of a trust-building process with North Korea. From her perspective, a trust-based relationship must be grounded in an adherence to international standards and to promises North Korea has made with South Korea and the international community. In her view, no past South Korean North Korea policy — tolerant or hard line — had any success. As such, she asserts the need for a trust-building process wherein these promises are reaffirmed and put into practice before any meaningful change can occur. For example, Park believes that, “firm trust between South and North must be established before economic cooperation is strengthened” and has pledged “not to request additional funding in this area other than for humanitarian aid.”5

In other words, a Park administration will not engage with North Korea unless Pyongyang fulfills conditions imposed by the United States, such as dismantling its nuclear weapons and missile programs. It also means that South Korea will not engage North Korea unless Seoul receives an apology from Pyongyang for the Cheonan and Yeonpyeongdo incidents. This stance willfully disregards Washington’s own failure to keep its promises to North Korea in the area of security assurances. Park’s position maintains the status quo; it does not seek a new relationship with North Korea. Her approach denies North Korea the opportunity to change its approach and ignores Pyongyang’s concerns about the threats posed by the U.S.-South Korea military alliance.

Moon Jae-in: All About Economics

“Peace is nothing other than the economy” is the Moon Jae-In’s slogan for addressing North-South relations. The Democratic Unity Party presidential candidate sees North-South relations as being closely tied to South Korean economic interests.

Moon often refers to the Inter-Korean Economic Union, originally proposed by Roh Moo-Hyun, and pledges to sign an Inter-Korean Comprehensive Economic Agreement that promotes safe investment and free trade between North and South Korea. He wants to transform the Korean peninsula into a common market with a “population of 80,000,000 and a national per capita income of USD $30,000.”6 To achieve this economic union, Moon says will he implement a five-year plan of the most effective economic activities stipulated in the 2007 October 4 Declaration, signed between Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il during the second inter-Korea summit.

Moon’s plan includes the creation of a Korean Peninsula Infrastructure Development Organization to attract foreign investment. It also includes the formation of an East Sea Rim economic zone that runs from Busan to Ulsan, Pohang, Samcheok, Donghae, through North Korea’s eastern seaboard of Rajin-Sonbong, and onto Russia and China. He wants to develop a West Sea Rim economic zone spanning from Jeju Island through the Jeolla region, the Chungjeong region, Incheon, Gyeonggi, Haeju, Nampo, Hwanggeumpyeong and Sinuiju and eastern China. Moon views these economic zones as the foundation for a “Northeast Asia Cooperation Growth Belt” — a massive market with a population of 600 million.

Yet his plan fails to outline the future stability of North-South economic cooperation. While Moon proposes to establish an Inter-Korean Economic Agreement, even he admits that the failure of North-South economic cooperation is not for lack of institutions and structures, but rather due to a volatile political situation. Moon believes the implementation of several progressive provisions found within the October Declaration is all that is needed, but his plan fails to address how inter-Korea economic cooperation will become viable.

Moon’s vision of a Northeast Asia Cooperation Growth Belt is only possible if a stable economic relationship with North Korea is first established. At the very least, foreign investors would need a guarantee that they could reliably conduct business with North Korea, specifically companies and financial institutions. This is impossible without lifting the battery of international economic sanctions imposed on North Korea.

Lastly, Moon fails to address the question of whether the infrastructure investment in North Korea is even possible. Moon says he will establish a Korean Peninsula Infrastructure Development Organization to attract foreign investment, yet such investment in infrastructure requires considerable capital, upon which returns take a long time to appear. It is unlikely that investors will be eager to funnel capital into a country when transactions could be cut off at any time. In a meeting with Jang Seong-taek, Chief of the North Korean Workers Party’s Central Administrative Department, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao stated that in order to revive its economy, North Korea would need to make systemic changes, such as revising laws and applying market principles to real estate and taxation. Unless these conditions are met, it is unlikely that foreign investors will find North Korea an attractive foreign investment.

Limits of the Sunshine Policy

Moon’s North Korea policy follows the same logic of the Sunshine Policy promoted by the late former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung. The Sunshine Policy, for all of its contributions to promoting peaceful relations and reconciliation, however, has major shortcomings and requires a different approach to bring about lasting change on the Korean Peninsula.

As a presidential candidate in 1995, Kim Dae-jung put forth a unification proposal in three stages: 1) South-North union, 2) federal unification and, 3) complete unification. The first two stages were to be achieved through economic integration, and the third stage, economic integration, would be expanded to political integration, also made in Park Geun-hye’s unification proposal.

The Sunshine Policy, however, at least identified the conditions needed to qualitatively transform the two Koreas from cultural-economic integration to political. These conditions involved North Korea’s liberalization, including the introduction of a market economy, a multi-party system and free elections. In other words, Kim Dae-jung’s policy introduced a process to induce North Korea’s economic liberalization and political reform, including free trade between the two Koreas, where North Korea would shift to a labor-intensive, low value-added manufacturing base and export processing zone, and be incorporated as a subordinate partner of the South Korean economy.

In accordance with this vision, Kim Dae-jung and his successor Roh Moo-hyun pursued inter-Korea economic cooperation. While South Korea handled economic relations, the United States managed political dealings with North Korea and military issues pertinent to the Korean Peninsula. The outcome was that the implementation of the Sunshine Policy became completely tied to the Clinton administration’s Perry Process, which sought, but did not achieve, to ultimately eradicate North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Under the Perry Process, the United States actively supported North-South economic exchange and the reunion of separated families, but refused to deal with the question of improving North-South relations through U.S.-North Korea negotiations. The issues raised by North Korea since the 1980s — areas central to improving tensions on the Korean Peninsula — were seen to fall outside the scope of North-South relations and left entirely to fall under U.S. jurisdiction. These issues included the withdrawal of U.S. military forces (particularly nuclear weapons), North-South arms reductions, and a system for guaranteeing peace on the Peninsula (a non-aggression pact between South and North Korea, a peace treaty between the United States and North Korea). Improvements in North-South relations became completely separate from U.S.-North Korea negotiations.

In contrast to Lee Myung-bak’s closed-door policies, the Sunshine Policy expanded dialogue and exchange to provide a relative sense of security. It also brought about new tensions to inter-Korea relations by pushing the economic re-organization of North Korean society under the leadership of South Korean capital on the one hand, and strengthening the U.S.-South Korea military alliance on the other. In other words, a green light was offered, approving U.S. hegemony over the Korean Peninsula and the entire East Asian region. At the same, while seeking a path towards North Korea’s economic integration, the Sunshine Policy was in fact completely inadequate and unable to eliminate the fundamental reasons for continued instability on the Korean Peninsula.7

Improving North-South relations is important and requires solutions to the political problems that inhibit a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. Without addressing the issue that the United States exercises ultimate control over South Korea’s military and has significant influence over its political matters, progress in inter-Korean cooperation and exchange can at any moment be quashed by U.S. interests.

The Crux of the Problem

The two leading South Korean presidential candidates have failed to address the heart of tensions on the Korean peninsula. These include U.S. policy regarding the Korean peninsula and North Korea’s economic troubles. Pyongyang is ultimately looking for a security guarantee. Without an end to Washington’s policy and threat of a pre-emptive strike, advances in inter-Korea economic cooperation remain fragile. No proposal for unification is viable unless it contains a solution to these fundamental political problems.

Second, North Korea justifies its nuclear weapons program as a means of self-defense in the face of a U.S. military threat and South Korea’s superior conventional weapons arsenal. These critical security issues must be addressed: the presence of 37,500 U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula, South Korea’s coverage under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, and the joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises and offensive operation plans. Further, a plan for North-South (or South/U.S. and North/China) mutual arms reductions must be put into place if progress in the area of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is to be made.

A solution to the North Korea nuclear problem is sorely needed. North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons threatens the equilibrium in East Asia. Furthermore, the United States has responded to North Korea’s alleged sinking of the Cheonan in 2010 and the attack on Yeonpyeong Island in 2011 by carrying out military exercises with a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier dispatched to waters near the Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s military provocations have brought about more aggressive U.S. military interventions, which naturally troubles China. North Korea has upped the ante. It changed its Constitution to designate itself as a nuclear state, publicized its uranium enrichment facilities, and continues its nuclear weapons program. As North Korea becomes a nuclear power, the possibility of a regional conflict involving the United States, South Korea, Japan, China and North Korea becomes greater.

The Obama administration’s ‘Asia pivot’, which includes significant U.S. military deployment to the region, is increasing tensions with China, while Beijing is using its influence over North Korea as a means to reduce Washington’s influence and strengthen its own position. Less powerful countries that hope to see an end to U.S. hegemony are strengthening their relationships with China. The United States, which hopes to maintain control in East Asia, will likely respond to this aggressively, leading to increased tensions in the region with negative consequences for the Korean Peninsula.

Unfortunately, neither of the two leading South Korean presidential candidates has seriously addressed these critical issues, which threaten peace and stability for the Korean people and the region. While much hinges upon who is elected on December 19, it will take a peoples’ movement—in the United States and Korea—to offer alternatives and build a transnational struggled to find lasting peace on the Korean peninsula.

*Suyeol is a Policy Director and the Anti-war Team Leader for People’s Solidarity for Social Progress (PSSP) in South Korea.

  1. Sin Beom-cheol, “The Prospect for North Korean Politics after the Dismissal of Lee Yeong-ho and Policy Implications,” Analysis of Main International Issues, Institute for Foreign Relations and Security, October 2012.

  2. [Elections Pledge] Opening a new Era for the Korean Peninsula through Trust-based Foreign Relations,” Park Geun-hye Official Election Website.

  3. Moon Jae-in, ‘The North Korea Nuclear Problem was caught in a Viscous Cycle during the Lee Myung-bak Administration,” Yonhap News, 26 October 2012.

  4. Pak Jong-cheol, et. al., “A New Approach to and Direction for the National Community Unification Proposal,” Korean Institute for National Unification, 2010.

  5. National Elections Commission, “Policy and Election Pledges.”

  6. The Door to Peace and Harmonious Coexistence,” Moon Jae-in Official Elections Website.


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