Sunshine Policy 2.0: A New Inter-Korean Détente By Jun Kwon and Sung Jang
This week Kim Jong Un stated that he was willing to begin negotiations on denuclearization with the United States. This would mark the first time that Kim Jong Un has stated intentions to give up his nuclear arsenal and the first substantial initiative from the North to create warmer relations with its southern counterpart and the United States.
South Korean announced there would be an inter-Korean summit meeting between President Moon Jae-in of the South and Kim from the North in April. Further efforts to improve inter-Korean relations is contingent on the American response.
So far, President Trump has shown that openness to talks with North Korea. That said, it may be very possible that like previous talks, the prospects for denuclearization and diplomatic normalization between the U.S. and North Korea may fall apart.
South Korea took note of the fact that Kim Jong Un was surprisingly flexible and accommodating to the possibilities of peace and inter-Korean dialogue. The South Korean delegation had expected that Kim Jong Un would demand a cease to the U.S.–South Korean joint military exercises as a precondition to negotiation.
Kim was reported to have said that he had understood why those exercises can be carried out. At the same time, he stated that should the situation on the Korean Peninsula progress, changes would be appropriate. There were no further demands from Kim Jong Un at this point in time.
This surprising détente between the two Koreas may be credited to Moon Jae-in’s revival of liberal administrations’ Sunshine Policy. President Moon served as chief of staff under liberal president Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008), who continued the Sunshine policy from the years of Kim Dae-jung. The Sunshine Policy’s sought to achieve warmer relations with North Korea through dialogue and negotiations, while maintaining the power to punish North Korea militarily and economically should the North pursue acts of aggression.
Moon, unlike his conservative predecessor Park Geun-hye, managed to more effectively pursue a foreign policy a little more independent from U.S. aligned interests. It is through the precarious balance continuing punitive measures against the North, as well as initiatives and signals to the North for détente, that has rendered Kim Jong Un to agree to significant talks for the first time in his tenure.
In contrast to the Korean response, it is likely that the United States is at best cautiously optimistic and at worst, alarmed by the Kim’s surprising move. The United States is a hegemonic power wishing to maintain its influence within the region.
Any possibility of significant permanent inter-Korean reconciliation right now could be detrimental to U.S. interests. In looking at the patterns of American interactions with its allies and partners around the world (aside from Europe), countries who rely on American weapons and military the most are those who are in close proximity to American enemies. In Asia that would be Japan, and South Korea being close to North Korea and China.
In order to maintain influence over South Korea, the United States will most likely sabotage any chances of the sincere inter-Korean rapprochement whether it be directly or indirectly. American troops are stationed in South Korea for a reason. The Korean government perceives that the threat from North Korea requires the American military for security purposes.
It is likely that in order to proceed with this political sabotage, the United States would place more egregious preconditions for talks, or demands that simply cannot be met by the North Koreans. United States may also pressure South Korea through the back channels to force president Moon to back down.
Japan, another stakeholder in the region, would also most likely try to pressure South Korea out of its revitalization of the Sunshine Policy. A reunified Korea would be detrimental to Japan as it would significantly change the balance of power in the region.
Should there be a unified Korea under the command of the South, there would be a market of 22 million people in the North ready to be developed with the possibility of expansion of the Korean economy massively. The unified Korea will no longer be a small divided state between China and Japan’s rivalry, but rather become tantamount to Japan itself because of its newly acquired population and resources.
Ultimately, the success of these talks as of now are reliant on the attitudes of the United States. North Korea has insisted for long that any prospects of peace between the Koreas must include the United States.
The United States has long demanded that North Korea be ready to give away their nuclear program for any progression in talks, and currently Kim Jong Un has offered to do so without any other conditions. The Koreas have made their move and is now waiting for the American response. Peace and détente on the Korean Peninsula now lies in the hands of the Trump administration.
Jun Kwon is Chair of International Studies and Assistant Professor of Government at Utica College. Sung Jang is a government student at Utica College.