Tuesday, November 07, 2006
Political confusion in South Korea
North Korea's nuclear test leads to political confusion in the South
IT IS a place of mythical beauty—its peaks and pine forests the stuff of songs and scroll paintings—but Mount Kumgang, just on the northern side of the divided Korean peninsula, has become a symbol of all that is troubled about South Korea's policy towards its bad neighbour. Since 1998 the South has run a tourist resort at Mount Kumgang, which 1.4m South Koreans have visited. For Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea's president, this (along with a miserable light-industrial park at Kaesong) was proof that his strategy of engaging with North Korea, known as the “sunshine policy”, was bearing fruit. But since North Korea exploded a nuclear device on October 9th, if not before, the fruit has been foul.
The point of engaging North Korea was to coax Kim Jong Il and his regime to behave better. Engagement was supposed to bring economic benefits to the benighted North; a modicum of mutual trust was meant to lessen its threat. These assumptions were badly upset in July, when Mr Kim conducted missile tests; his nuclear test has blown them away. Mr Roh's administration, which has another year to run, is discredited, its popularity rating in the teens. This week both the defence minister and the minister for unification offered to resign.
Quite right too, say Mr Roh's opponents. In particular, the nuclear tests have stirred anger at the money given over several years to a foul regime: public and private money, above the table and under it. More thoughtful critics say the sunshine policy was originally a sensible one, meant to transform the North with a view to reunification. But engagement, particularly under Mr Roh, became an end in itself. Thereby, it can be argued, the policy changed the South more than the North.
How much money it has cost the South may never be known. At the government's urging, Hyundai, a family-held conglomerate, sent some $500m discreetly to Mr Kim to secure a historic summit in 2000 between the Dear Leader and the architect of the sunshine policy, the then president, Kim Dae-jung (no relation). The opposition Grand National Party (GNP) claims that, officially, some $1.2 billion of government cash has gone to North Korea since 1998 (not counting lashings of humanitarian aid, now temporarily suspended). The government disputes that figure but, amazingly, no full audit trail exists.
Among other things, the South Korean government has subsidised visits to Mount Kumgang. These subsidies, it promises, will now stop, but a big chunk of the revenues from the resort—the 40,000 visitors in a usual month pay up to $500 each—will continue to go straight into the regime's pocket. In all, Hyundai, which built the resort and runs it, has sent $850m in royalties to Mr Kim and his cronies.
America's secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and its envoy for North Korea, Christopher Hill, who visited South Korea last week, are critical of the Mount Kumgang resort, which they believe generates cash for weapons of mass destruction. In addition, in talks this week over a proposed free-trade agreement between South Korea and the United States, American negotiators made it plain that imports from North Korea through the Kaesong zone could play no part in such a deal—thereby undermining the zone's rationale. The GNP has criticised both projects.
Yet Mr Roh and the ruling Uri party continue to defend them. They are, after all, the only fruits of engagement. During Ms Rice's visit, Ban Ki-moon, South Korea's foreign minister, who will soon become secretary-general of the United Nations, emphasised the “positive aspects” of the industrial park, as well as the “symbolic” importance of Kumgang in reconciling the two Koreas. The Uri party's chairman, Kim Geun-tae, goes further, claiming the Kumgang tours are needed more than ever.
Though Mr Roh's government has given its approval to stiff American-led sanctions against North Korea, which were passed by the UN Security Council on October 14th, it in fact shows little appetite for confrontation. That is partly because many South Koreans share a blind faith in the ultimate benign nature of the North's brutal regime—about which they are remarkably ill-informed. On October 25th North Korea said the South's participation in the sanctions would be a “declaration of confrontation” for which it would pay “a high price”.
Most Southerners think the North's crude nuclear capability does not represent a big new threat to them. North Korean artillery, after all, has long been positioned within range of Seoul's northern suburbs. Meanwhile, South Korea's predominant political consensus, says Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul, is to seek gradual change north of the border in ways that might eventually narrow the vast income gap between the two sides. Tightening the screws too far risks goading Mr Kim to strike back. A collapse of the regime, followed by reunification, would impose unbearable costs on the South. Even the opposition GNP, says Park Jin, a member of the party, believes in maintaining dialogue with the North, while adding some pressure.
It is a path that is likely to lead South Korea increasingly into conflict with America, which wants stiffer confrontation with the North. In annual bilateral defence talks last week in Washington, DC, America's secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, pressed South Korea to join the American-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which is designed to interdict ships carrying material for weapons of mass destruction. The South Korean government is vacillating, fearing that this would rile the North and so increase the nuclear threat.