South Korea: Let the ‘sunshine’ in?

The movement towards the formal cancellation of the ‘May 24 Measures’ is gathering steam.

Employees of North Korea's greenhouse vegetable research institute harvesting cucumbers in Pyongyang [EPA]
Employees of North Korea's greenhouse vegetable research institute harvesting cucumbers in Pyongyang [EPA]

South Korean opposition lawmakers have begun to wage a campaign aimed at the cancellation of the so-called “May 24 Measures” that ban most trade between North and South Korea, as well as South Koreans’ trips to the North, and aid to North Korea.

This opposition proposal does not contradict what is often said by the people in the government – for example, this spring the Ryoo Kihl-jae, the South Korean “Minister for Unification” also said that these “measures” might be relaxed or cancelled – but only as a reward to North Korea’s willingness to talk. So, it seems that the movement towards the formal cancellation of the “May 24 Measures” is gathering steam.

But what are these measures about? On May 24, 2010, the South Korean public was warned that Lee Myung-bak, President of Korea, would soon deliver an urgent address to the nation. Few people were in doubt in regard to the topic of this address: Two months earlier, on March 26, South Korean corvette Cheonan, while on patrol in the disputed waters along the sea border between the two Korean states, experienced a powerful explosion and sunk. In the disaster, 46 South Korean sailors were killed. In early May, the South Korean government and international investigators said that the explosion was produced by a North Korean submarine torpedo attack.

In his May 24 speech, President Lee introduced a set of sanctions, which came to be known as the “May 24 Measures”. According to the measures, North Korean planes and ships would be banned from using South Korean airspace and sea lanes, all trade with and aid to North Korea (with a very significant exception of the Kaesong Industrial Zone) would be banned. The introduction of the “May 24 Measures” effectively ended the honeymoon in the relations between the two Korean states which lasted from 2000 to 2008.

Object of engagement?

Relations between the two Korean states, frozen for decades, improved significantly when in 1998 the South Korean left-leaning opposition won the presidential elections. The new administration of Kim Dae-jung believed that North Korea should not be seen as a threat and rival, but rather as an object of engagement and cooperation, so Seoul was ready to spend taxpayers’ money on subsidies to the North. This policy line was continued by the next administration of Roh Moo-hyun who also represented the same left-of the-centre forces.

Initial expectations … were grossly exaggerated. In most cases, intra-Korean cooperation projects were not profitable, but survived due to the subsidies provided by the South Korean government.

This approach came to be known as the “sunshine policy”. Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and their supporters assumed that North Korea, when treated with aid and unilateral economic concessions, would be less inclined to engage in brinkmanship and would probably initiate economic and political reforms.

As a result, trade between the two Koreas increased dramatically, often propelled by subsidies and political support from Seoul. While the two Korean states were technically at war, the South also became the largest provider of food aid to the North. The sunshine policy culminated in three big joint projects: Keumgang Mountain tourist zone, Kaesong city tours, and above all, the Kaesong industrial zone. The first two were, essentially, tourist areas in the North open for short-term and closely supervised South Korean visitors, but the latter was far more significant.

The Kaesong industrial zone, located just north of the DMZ, is essentially a South Korean industrial district inside North Korea. Some 55,000 North Korean workers and about 1,000 South Korean managers and technicians work there in factories run by small and medium-sized South Korean businesses. The idea is to tap into the cheap reservoir of North Korean labour (the average monthly salary there is about $100, small change by South Korean standards).

However, with the passage of time the South Korean public became increasing dissatisfied and frustrated with the “sunshine policy”. It soon became evident that initial expectations connected with inter-Korean economic cooperation were grossly exaggerated. In most cases, intra-Korean cooperation projects were not profitable, but survived due to the subsidies provided by the South Korean government.

At the same time, North Korean behaviour did not change as intended. While the “sunshine policy” was marked by a palpable reduction of inter-Korean tension, the North Korean nuclear programme did not slow down. Indeed, the North Koreans conducted their first nuclear test in 2006 – that is, while the “sunshine policy” was reaching its heights. More significantly, there were no signs of government-initiated market reforms or political liberalisation inside North Korea (albeit the spontaneous growth of the markets continued).

South Korean disillusionment

This brought the disillusionment of the South Korean public with the “sunshine policy”. In 2007, the conservative candidate, Lee Myung-bak, won the presidential elections, pushing centre-left “progressives” back into the opposition. President Lee promised that aid to North Korea would be conditional. In other words, it was said that North Korea should first surrender, or at least significantly downgrade its nuclear weapons programme and only then might it count on South Korea’s generosity. This demand was not acceptable for North Koreans who are determined to remain nuclear whatever the political cost.

This change of position triggered a crisis in relations between the two Koreas. The Keumgang tourist zone’s operations and Kaesong city tours were discontinued, soon followed by a number of smaller projects. Only the Kaesong industrial zone, the largest inter-Korean undertaking, survived.

The tensions culminated in March 2010 when Cheonan was hit by a North Korean torpedo. Additionally, in November 2010, after the “May 24 Measures” were announced, North Korean artillery shelled an island located near the sea border between the two Korean states. This led to civilian causalities – the first civilian causalities resulting from an inter-Korean conflict since the Korean War.

Since then, economic interaction between the two sides has been limited to the Kaesong industrial zone which has been in trouble sometimes but has survived nonetheless.

The “May 24 Measures” were supposed to punish North Korea economically for its misbehaviour. However, in this regard, they were hardly successful. The North Korean economy continued to grow after the measures were put in place – the only difference was that it became more dependent on China. Needless to say, the measures did not stop North Korea’s advance towards a nuclear capability and more reliable missile systems. Since the measures were introduced, North Korea has conducted another nuclear test and a successful launch of a prototype ICBM, the first of its kind.

On the other hand, the “May 24 Measures” critics insist that the measures have deprived South Korea of what little access it had to the North Korean market and society and essentially marginalised South Korea diplomatically and politically. In a sense, a pendulum moved back. In 2006-8, many people were annoyed by the lack of results produced by the intra-Korean cooperation. Now, many people are annoyed by the tensions between the two Korean states.

The South Korean public is reluctant to admit that in order to decrease tensions, North Korea should be provided with aid and preferential trade, but such measures can buy only a relative decrease in tensions, not a complete transformation of North Korea’s policy. Thus, one should not be surprised that a growing number of South Korean politicians and analysts now demand a serious revision or even cancellation of the measures.

Of course, the measures still have some supporters. These people, overwhelmingly on the conservative, right-leaning side of South Korean politics, say that the lifting of such measures, without any noticeable concessions from the North Korean side, will send the wrong signal to Pyongyang. Hard-line politicians still insist that North Korea should first admit its responsibility for the Cheonan incident – something the North Koreans are highly unlikely to do.

However, to quote Harold Macmillan, it seems that the wind of change is blowing through this peninsula. The cancellation of the “May 24 Measures” is likely to happen soon, even though it will not necessarily lead to the complete revival of the “sunshine policy”.

Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”.

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