Summer Reading II: Chung-in Moon on the Sunshine Policy



Chung-in Moon is one of Korea’s most important foreign policy intellectuals and a perennial thorn in the side of South Korea’s hawks. In the 1980s, when it was genuinely risky to do so—both politically and professionally—Moon was thinking about alternative approaches to North Korea. He subsequently became an advisor to both the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun administrations and has the distinction of being one of the few people, if not the only person, to have attended both the 2000 and 2007 summits. His knowledge of the history of North-South relations is encyclopedic. Truth in advertising; although we disagree on a number of things, he is an old and dear friend.

Moon’s new book, The Sunshine Policy: In Defense of Engagement as a Path to Peace (Yonsei University Press) draws on other essays but with a lot of new reflection. Throughout, this is not just a book of argument but rich in direct observation and data about what occurred. It is an important, clear and thorough statement of the engagement approach.

The book is organized broadly chronologically, starting with an essay on the intellectual origins of the Sunshine policy and chapters on each of the summits. Given the significance of the June 15 2000 statement as a cornerstone of the engagement approach, Moon’s parsing of the document is particularly useful. For example, he shows how the controversial language “to solve the question of the country’s reunification independently” in fact constituted a North Korean concession to its longstanding opposition to any US presence on the peninsula. The analysis of the 2007 summit document is equally telling, for example in recognizing the difficulties Roh Moo Hyun’s team had in getting the North Koreans to acknowledge that South Korea had an interest in—and role to play—in the nuclear question.

The book is not an unreflective defense; Moon has been thinking hard about what went wrong and notes throughout the stubborn unresponsiveness of the North Koreans and the naivete of the engagement crowd. But in the end, the core argument of the book is that the Sunshine policy didn’t fail; it was never tried. The reason has largely to do with the Bush administration’s bluster during the first administration, a point we have written on at great length ourselves and on which we largely agree with Moon.

Bush overlapped with the incoming Lee Myung Bak administration, which also abandoned the approach; Moon offers up a stinging critique and it is hard to disagree that LMB has precious little to show for his persistence. But Moon treats the LMB government as an exogenous shock, forgetting that it came to office in the wake of a democratic election that revealed substantial public disaffection with the progressive years, both with respect to domestic and foreign policy.

Unfortunately, we also have something resembling natural experiments for Moon’s claim that the external environment is determinative of the sunshine policy’s success.

  • The first was in the second half of 2000, from the time of the summit through the election of W. The North Koreans gave Kim Dae Jung absolutely nothing during this period; indeed they complicated his political life as a result.
  • Among North Korea wonks, debates about 2008 continue to turn on the question of whether the US dropped the ball or North Korea was to blame. But Pyonyang in the end did not aggressively exploit the softening during the second Bush administration.
  • Nor, finally, did the regime assist a new, preoccupied Barak Obama, a failure that Moon acknowledges was a major miscalculation on Pyongyang’s part. To argue that the wrong turn in early 2009 should fall entirely on a US failure to act with alacrity—rather than on the missile and nuclear tests—stretches credulity.

The core analytic difference I have with the Moon approach rests in presumptions about the sources of state behavior, an old debate in international relations theory. Moon is worth quoting at length:

“The Sunshine Policy assumed that North Korean behavior could be tamed if proper external incentives were granted. North Korea slid into becoming a rouge state or an extortion state not simply because of its regime structure and aggressive ideology but because of international isolation and containment (25).”

We would like to know when North Korea “slid” into being a rogue state. 1950 would be a defensible choice from the revealed historical record. But the idea that the responsibility for the failure of the Sunshine Policy rests in Washington or Seoul absolves Pyongyang of responsibility for its own choices. In the end, the core question since the reformist turn in China and the collapse of the Soviet Union is simple: is the North Korean leadership going to seek security by joining the rest of the human race or is it going to continue to stew in its self-destructive ideological brew of familial authoritarianism, juche, songun and victimization? To put the onus of Pyongyang’s decision to keep fighting the cold war on the rest of the world is not only analytically misguided; it sends exactly the wrong signal to the leadership.

This difference of view connects with another disturbing feature of the engagement approach: the decision to set aside the panoply of human rights issues that the regime poses. In the Ramstand interview cited below, Moon makes both a strong and weak defense of this strategy. The strong defense is that much human rights talk is just posturing. Moreover, it is posturing that can be costly when it interferes with equally if not more pressing humanitarian objectives. Believe me; we are sensitive to these concerns and have fought our own battles over efforts to cut the regime off from international humanitarian support.

But this defense—about which reasonable people can disagree--is coupled with a much more disturbing and legalistic one: that the basic agreement of 1992 and the June 15 and October 4 declarations tie the hands of the South Koreans to be quiet on the issue. As Moon tells Ramstad, “The common understanding in all these agreements with North Korea is non-interference with domestic politics of each other, non-denunciation, no criticism.” Tell that to the North Korean propaganda machinery, which has gone into a virtual frenzy over the last year (for some grisly evidence, see our earlier post on the campaign.)

Unfortunately, I can think of virtually no cases in which the victims of human rights abuses subsequently argue that the international community did too much; the problem is typically that we say and do too little. But there is a deeper issue. The human rights and humanitarian situation in North Korea is not simply a moral issue; they are a deep and telling indicator of what the regime is really about. Why should we believe that a regime that holds its own people in utter contempt will behave in the well-mannered fashion that the Sunshine Policy assumes? We return to our first point: North Korea’s behavior is not simply a stimulus-response reaction to external incentives, no matter how small and vulnerable the country may appear. Rather it is rooted in a grand strategy that eschews engagement with a dynamic regional economy in favor of extortion and rent-seeking, a strategy that has made the country—if not the regime—less rather than more secure.

So why do we need to read Moon’s account? Because in the end he may be right that there is little more that we can do except to keep pushing on the door. In the last third of the book, he looks forward.

In Chapter Six, Moon is constrained to talk about the question of “unification” and rightly dismisses the likelihood of unification by absorption, force, or some sort of third party intervention. The logic of this exposition is to get rid of least likely scenarios in order to focus on what is left standing, an approach that Moon calls “unification by consensus” and which I prefer to call “détente.” Although targeted at dreams of unification among South Korea’s hard right, Moon is constrained to admit that the prospects depend heavily on PyonGyang, which must “undertake a new initiative toward economic reform and opening, which would require in turn to show more deliberate concessions on the nuclear issue as well a a reconciliatory posture toward South Korea (195)” No problems here.

We also agree with Moon’s analysis that the current emphasis on balancing through the strengthening of alliance relations can only be one component of a more enduring piece. As my economist colleague Marc Noland would point out, there are incredible inefficiencies in current geo-strategic arrangements in Northeast Asia, both with respect to unnecessary defense spending—which Moon outlines in a useful chapter--and the foregone gains from closer regional integration.

But all of that is the easy stuff and absorbs too much space; the real question is how to get there. In his concluding chapter, Moon offers a spirited defense of the Sunshine Policy against six conservative critiques:

  • That it involved excessive handouts to the North;
  • That it eroded national security;
  • That it generated tensions in the US alliance;
  • That is was responsible for North Korea’s nuclear buildup;
  • That it failed to change North Korea
  • And that it neglected human rights, a point Moon concedes at least in part (p. 229)

But his main concluding defense for returning to the Sunshine approach has to do with developments in Pyongyang itself and may well be right. In contrast with others who will go unnamed, Moon rightly argues that the transition in the North is going much more smoothly than some expected and that we should give K3 a chance. Moreover, Moon argues that Kim Jong Un’s own domestic political life will be made easier if not confronted at the outset with crises, even if growing out of his own miscalculations (as Moon admits with respect to the missile launch and abrogation of the February 29 deal). In the end, Moon’s defense follows Lee Sigal’s long-standing observation that a crime and punishment strategy simple doesn’t work.

Moon’s book recognizes the political constraints of an election year. He admits that for the US there is not much more it can do than keep the New York channel open and try to get the Chinese to crack things open.

Moon’s more ambitious proposals are therefore reserved for the South, and amount to nothing more than the complete reversal of the LMB strategy, including:

  • Giving up the May 24 Measures, the sanctions initiated following the Cheonan incident;
  • Resuming humanitarian assistance;
  • Reactivating Mt. Geumgang;
  • Abandon the strategy of conditioning North-South talks on the nuclear issue;
  • Return to—and implement—not only the September 19 Joint Statement of the Six Party talks, but uphold the two summit documents, something North Korea has long been pressing.

But Moon makes no mention of what South Korea would seek for making these important policy changes beyond the creation of an improved climate. The hope continues to rest on the presumption that signals of diffuse reciprocity will ultimately lure the North back toward more cooperative behavior and have some of the transformative effects on the North Korean political economy.

Yet we close with an incredibly telling vignette from the Roh-Kim summit in 2007. Roh had brought a laundry list of possible cooperation projects with him, including the idea of opening more export processing zones in the country. Kim Jong Il responded that they had received no benefits from the project, despite a steady stream of cash payments that went more or less directly to the regime. Nonetheless Kim Jong Il wanted the project expanded beyond its pilot stage (meaning that they wanted more payments) and they wanted to the South to stop talking about the project as a successful example of “opening and reform,” which it wasn’t. Unfortunately, that is still what we are up against.

Sino-NK has a useful interview at the time of the book release in April. As always, Evan Ramstad at the WSJ blog offers good commentary on Moon and the book, noting the motive to influence the debate in the upcoming presidential election in the South.

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