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DJ's Legacy

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009
Kim Dae-jung

The debate has already begun over the accomplishments and failures of Kim Dae-jung, as controversial a president in his own way as was his arch-enemy, Park Chung-hee. Historians and political scientists will long argue over whether the Sunshine policy initiated by "DJ," the westernized initials by which he is known among Koreans as well as foreigners, did much good in bringing about North-South reconciliation. Liberals and leftists no doubt look upon Kim Dae-jung as Korea's greatest president in view of his long struggle against dictatorship as well as the relations he tried to forge between the two Koreas, just as conservatives venerate Park for the firm leadership that they believe was completely necessary for Korea's "economic miracle." Certainly DJ leaves a legacy of controversy over his Sunshine policy that is likely to go on dividing foreigners and South Koreans in academic forums and political campaigns as surely as it did during his presidency.

Without a doubt Kim Dae-jung's many defenders see North Korea's gesture of sending a delegation of "special envoys" to his massive state funeral on Aug. 23 as evidence of the triumph of his policies along with the special condolences that the North's Dear leader Kim Jong-il had already sent to DJ's widow, Lee Hee-ho. The North Korean response reflects the high hopes and emotions engendered by the first inter-Korean summit, in June 2000, at which the two Kims met in Pyongyang and issued a joint declaration resolving to settle differences. Six months later, Kim Dae-jung received the Nobel Peace Prize.

DJ, in his final days and hours, taking his last breaths through a respirator in Seoul's Severance Hospital, was probably totally unaware of what was happening, but in the days before his death, Kim Jong-il appeared to want to soothe tensions. Four days before DJ died, Kim Jong-il, believed to have suffered a stroke in August of last year and long been afflicted by diabetes, received Hyun Jeong-eun, the chairwoman of Hyundai Asan, the company responsible for building the special economic complex at Gaeseong and the tourist zone at Mount Geumgang, after releasing a Hyundai Asan engineer who had been held for 137 days in the Gaeseong complex for maligning the North Korean regime in flirtatious conversations with a North Korean waitress.

North Korea's Korean Central News Agency paid special tribute to Kim Dae-jung, saying "the feats he performed to achieve national reconciliation and realize the desire for reunification will remain long with the nation." At the same time, North Korea refrained from its usual harsh criticism of President Lee, often denounced as a "traitor" for cutting off shipments of food and fertilizer as given during the presidencies of Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun.

Lee, after succeeding Roh in February 2008, has insisted on "verification" of anything North Korea claims to have done to abandon its nuclear program. North Korea, meanwhile, has boasted of restarting the program and has again withdrawn from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

DJ died hoping to the end that U.S. President Barack Obama, would pick up where Bill Clinton left off at the end of 2000 and give North Korea sweeping concessions in return for North Korea's finally giving up its nuclear weapons program. And, before he was hospitalized with pneumonia, he blamed Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, for having undermined his Sunshine policy even though Bush reversed himself and gave up the "hard-line" of his first term. Both Obama and Clinton were unstinting in praise of DJ after Clinton briefed Obama on his visit to Pyongyang during which he met Kim Jong-il for three hours before returning with the two American journalists who had been held for 140 days since they were picked up filming on the Tumen River border with China.

There was, however, a crucial difference in their statements. Obama praised Kim Dae-jung for having "risked his life to build and lead a political movement that played a crucial role in establishing a dynamic democratic system in the Republic of Korea." Those words were a tribute to the years in which Kim, as a dissident battling military-led regimes, was jailed, placed under house arrest and the target of assassination attempts. Unlike Clinton, however, Obama did not touch upon Sunshine, alluding only to "his tireless efforts to promote peace on the Korean peninsula."  It was up to Clinton to say that "his Sunshine Policy offered more hope for lasting peace than at any time since the Korean War" -- an allusion to the hopes raised in October 2000 when Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, met Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. Clinton himself was thinking of going there, but the recount of Florida votes that gave Bush the presidency over Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, in January 2001 proved too much of a distraction.

Clinton, in his response to DJ's passing, went another significant step further than Obama, saying that "Hillary and I will miss our good friend" - a remark that placed Obama's secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, on the side of Kim's Sunshine policy whether she liked it or not. DJ could not have asked for kinder words considering the hopes he placed in Obama to bring about reconciliation with North Korea. In one of his last public addresses, before the Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club early this year, he recommended that Obama "assure North Korea of its security and its integration into the world economy and also promise normalized diplomatic ties with North Korea."

The United States should give North Korea "what they need," Kim Dae-jung advised, in return for "North Korea's agreement on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula including the complete abandonment of its nuclear program, abandonment of long-range missiles and establishment of a durable peace structure on the Korean peninsula." The way to achieve that goal, he believed, would be "through a declaration of the end of the Korean War, arms control and a peace treaty" - all central to North Korean demands that the Obama administration in its first months has avoided answering while blasting the North first for firing a long-range missile on April 5 and then for conducting its second underground test of a nuclear device on May 25.

Clinton is assumed to have relayed assurances to Obama from Kim Jong-il that he would like nothing better than dialogue - that is, two-way dialogue with the U.S., not the six-party talks to which North Korea has refused to return. Kim Jong-il's stance appears to have softened while North Korea suffers from ever-growing food shortages and Kim worries about passing the mantle of power over to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. Thus, Clinton no doubt helped to fulfill Kim Dae-jung's hope that Clinton would pass on the baton to Obama, reviving the high hopes of nine years ago when his five-year presidency reached its spectacular height in June 2000 with the first ever inter-Korean summit.

On that historic occasion Kim Jong-il hosted DJ in an atmosphere of confidence that the half-century of war and confrontation between the two Koreas was nearing an end. In a joint declaration the two Kims agreed to resolve "humanitarian" issues, reopen borders and unite families. Six months later, Kim Dae-jung won the Nobel Peace Prize. Soon enough, however, the hopes engendered by the summit were shattered. Like every other attempt at rapprochement, the promises of the declaration were meaningless.

Family visits were stilted and brief. Only 16,000 members of divided families, among several hundred thousand still alive all these years after the Korean War, ever saw each other. There are still no mail or telephone privileges. Visits to North Korea, when the North chooses to allow them, are tightly controlled and monitored. The industrial complex at Gaeseong and the tourist zone at Mount Geumgang seem to open and close at will, depending on mood swings in Pyongyang. Above all, North Korea refuses to give up its nuclear weapons and missile programs, to scale down its 1.1 million-man military establishment, to pull back forces ranged above the demilitarized zone that still divides the two Koreas or to stop horrific abuses of human rights.

How could Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine policy" of reconciliation have been such a disappointment? For a decade, during his presidency and then that of his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea pumped hundreds of thousands of tons of fertilizer and food into North Korea every year. Neither Kim nor Roh asked anything in return other than expressions of goodwill and signs of cooperation in the form of trade and visits. Neither had a clue that North Korea was forging ahead with a program for developing nuclear weapons with highly enriched uranium in blatant violation of an agreement reached with the U.S. at Geneva in 1994 under which the North made a show of shutting down the nuclear complex where it was producing nuclear devices with plutonium at their core.

Kim Dae-jung never abandoned Sunshine even after North Korea in October 2002 acknowledged the existence of the uranium program when pressed by a visiting U.S. delegation led by James Kelly, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia. Instead DJ strove to persuade George W. Bush throughout the Bush presidency to give up the supposedly "hard-line" policy in which Bush called for "verification" of any claim made by Kim Jong-il. By the time DJ stepped down in February 2003, the Geneva agreement, which called for construction of twin light-water nuclear energy reactors to help fulfill North Korea's energy needs while the North gave up its nukes, was in tatters.

Nor was the collapse of the Geneva agreement the only disillusionment. Kim Dae-jung was revealed to have approved the transfer of $500 million to North Korea to persuade Kim Jong-il to agree to the summit in the first place. The question in the aftermath of that revelation was the extent to which the funds not only propped up Kim Jong-il's regime, but how much it helped fund his military establishment and pay for the nuclear program.

The Sunshine policy endured through the presidency of Roh Moo-hyun, but South Koreans tired of a costly policy of appeasement that seemed to necessitate constant concessions. In December 2007, the conservative, Lee Myung-bak, a former chairman of Hyundai Engineering and Construction, the centerpiece of the Hyundai empire at the time, defeated another leftist by a lopsided majority. South Koreans wanted something in return for the forgiveness their governments had shown for North Korea's broken promises. Sunshine faded into a sunset in which North Korea called Lee a "traitor" and "lackey" of the United States.

There was an incredible paradox in Lee's election. The Bush administration by then had shifted course. Christopher Hill, succeeding Kelly as U.S. nuclear envoy, worked out deals in six-party talks at which North Korea agreed to specific plans for disabling and dismantling its nukes. Kim Dae-jung accused Bush of having delayed reconciliation by his previous policies. Roh Moo-hyun, visiting Pyongyang to see Kim Jong-il in October 2007, appeared to have come to terms on plans for rebuilding the country's infrastructure, including ports and railroads. All the agreements for North Korea to give up its nuclear program, however, were forgotten. North Korea, furious about Lee's firm policy and his refusal to hand out food and fertilizer for nothing, loudly renounced them.

Sunshine was a mirage in a nightmare. The Obama administration, through Secretary of State Clinton, has battled for enforcement of United Nations sanctions and stronger measures if needed, as the only response to a dictatorship that exists to perpetuate its harsh rule over its own people - and over all Koreans, North and South, if at all possible.

That's a dark view that Kim Dae-jung would have dismissed as surely as he would have loved Bill Clinton's praise for Sunshine. The disappointments over the past year, however, do not mean that Sunshine has faded totally into a sunset of recriminations and confrontation. The flames of Sunshine still glimmer in the shadows. Kim Dae-jung in his lifetime managed to suggest possibilities for which Koreans will aspire through moments of crisis. There have been many ups and downs in the long years since the holocaust of the Korean War. Nobody wants a second Korean War. DJ, by pursuing Sunshine, established goals and ideals that will guide leaders of both Koreas as they continue to try to come to terms - and avoid - the alternative of suffering and bloodshed.

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