'NK transition opens door for engagement'
Now is the time for regional players to take coordinated steps to engage North Korea, as its new leader Kim Jong-un seeks to emphasize the economy rather than military might, a scholar says in a new book.
The assertion from Moon Chung-in, an international relations expert at Yonsei University, comes as Pyongyang steps up propaganda on improving quality of life as part of its promise to become “strong and prosperous” by 2012.
“It is in that moment, the transition from security-first to security-plus-prosperity, that the unity of the North Korean political system will come under strain,” Moon says in “The Sunshine Policy: In Defense of Engagement as a Path to Peace in Korea.” “This should be the focal point of international responses to the transition process.”
Pyongyang has taken small steps to reform, bolstering cooperation with China and upgrading plans for special economic zones. But observers warn opening the economy could encourage greater information flow, posing challenges to its authoritarian system.
Making matters worse, the North’s isolation has deepened following a failed rocket launch in April — the latest chapter in its oscillation between provocation and negotiations.
“In order to break the vicious cycle, South Korea, the United States and China in particular need to embark on a coordinated, constructive engagement policy to normalize and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula,” and mitigate further provocations. Seoul should take the lead by rolling back sanctions for the North’s provocations in 2010, he adds.
Moon’s suggestion of reengagement comes as little surprise as he was instrumental in drafting President Kim’s policy that sought to ease military tensions by building cooperation and trust.
The initiative led to two summits, which Moon called only the “beginning of a long and precarious journey,” as well as a spate of economic and cultural exchanges. But it has come under fire as the North’s recalcitrance has grown despite the measures. President Lee Myung-bak tied major engagement to denuclearization steps and the North lashed out with deadly provocations in 2010.
Moon staunchly defends to policy, saying it was cut short by a conflicting U.S. policy under George W. Bush and that the current criticism has been unduly fueled by partisan politics.
He argues that as a long-term vision, engagement dovetails better into regional trends of regional multilateral cooperation than Lee’s strategy, which he says has focused on strengthened ties with Washington and hedging over Beijing, threatening to revive a “new Cold War mentality.”
Lee’s “focus on balancing and hedging represents a deviation from recent mainstream thought,” he writes. “The Sunshine Policy is the best-fitting approach to (an equilateral) balance and multilateral cooperation.” Moon works to rebut the major criticisms of the policy, including its “silence over human rights.” While acknowledging it is “one of the fairest criticisms,” he argues that Kim, an activist himself, believed that outside pressure would have limited efficacy and that the expansion of civil society and the advent of a middle class would drive change.
The book arrives with election-year politics in full swing and with calls amplified for both renewed engagement and bolstered deterrence toward the North. Moon’s defense of the Sunshine Policy adds to the debate.