In South Korea, voters are facing two very different visions of the future as they vote for president next week. One candidate hopes to isolate the communist regime in North Korea, forcing it to change. The other believes that embracing Pyongyang will bring about gradual, peaceful change. With each indication of bad behavior coming from the North, the hawks gain ground — as does the Bush administration, which favors a tough approach. But those who favor the “sunshine policy” have another force on their side — a new wave of bitterness toward the United States.
An announcement Thursday by Pyongyang that it would reactivate a nuclear power plant that will produce weapons-grade uranium as a side-product is the latest blow to South Korean confidence in their northern brothers. The move would be a direct violation of a 1994 deal under which North Korea gave up that nuclear plant and other nuclear-related development. In return, an international coalition including the United States, provided fuel oil, while building North Korea a light-water nuclear reactor.
The move comes on the heels of another embarrassing incident earlier in the week, in which a North Korean shipment of Scud-type missiles was intercepted on the way to Yemen. The shipment didn’t violate North Korean agreements — the nation relies on conventional weapons sales for key export revenues. And it didn’t say anything new about Pyongyang’s capabilities or ambitions — the shipment was carrying old technology sold to an old customer. But it was a reminder that Pyongyang is basically out selling weapons to all comers. It’s past customers include Iran, Pakistan and Libya.
Hawks and doves
The timing of Thursday’s announcement is bewildering, because it works against North Korean interests in neighboring South Korea, where voters are making final decisions for the Dec. 19 presidential election. The race is very close, according to the latest polls, and bad behavior by Pyongyang gives ammunition to Lee Hoi-chang, candidate for the conservative Grand National Party. Lee has argued for sanctions to put pressure on North Korea and criticized outgoing President Kim Dae-jung for coddling the communist dictatorship. Lee’s approach is far more sympathetic with the Bush administration, which has adopted a tough attitude toward the isolated communist regime, labeling it early on in its tenure in office as a part of an “axis of evil” along with Iraq and Iran. President Bush has veered away from the Clinton administration policy of engaging the North in an effort to press for change.
Lee is running against Roh Moo-hyun, candidate for the ruling Millennium Democratic Party. Roh, a former human rights lawyer, takes a strikingly different position on North Korea. He wants a continuation of Kim Dae-Jung’s sunshine policy on the theory that it will bring about economic and, eventually, political reform in the Stalinist regime and avoid a disastrous collapse.
Kim initiated unprecedented high-level talks with the North Korean government. Kim bolstered South Korean humanitarian aid to the North. On his watch, the two sides began working on road and rail links across the DMZ, across which their military forces have faced off for five decades. Under Kim, a handful of family members divided by the 1950-53 Korean War were allowed to meet for the first time since. South Korean tours to Mount Kumgang in the North marked the resumption of tourism, albeit highly restricted and controlled.
Toward the end of Kim’s time in office, the euphoria of the new policy has faded, however. His critics pointed out that Pyongyang has barely reciprocated, and the mixed messages coming out of Pyongyang further undercut the optimism for reunification.
Clearly, the outcome of the election will lay out very different scenarios for U.S. policy on the peninsula.
As it is, the Bush administration has increasingly moved to isolate North Korea, suspending deliveries of oil under the 1994 agreement and convincing Tokyo — in light of revelations about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions — to halt normalization talks with Pyongyang.
The administration has held difficult discussions with Kim, which has persisted with its sunshine policy in spite of criticism.
The outcome of South Korea’s elections could set up a strikingly different U.S.-South Korea dynamic.
“Conservatives in Washington would like to see North Korea collapse, through sanctions,” says Clark Sorenson, professor at the University of Washington. “They can’t do it through sanctions if the South does not go along.”
Wave of anti-Americanism
Lee’s conservatives looked poised to win until late November, when a firestorm of hostility toward the United States hit the political landscape. The spark was the acquittal in a U.S. military court of two U.S. soldiers in the deaths of two South Korean schoolgirls several months earlier.
The girls had been walking to a birthday party along a narrow country road when they were hit by a U.S. military vehicle and killed.
The court case spotlighted the visible and sometimes disruptive presence of U.S. troops in South Korea and sparked resentment at Washington’s seeming arrogance toward South Korea, particularly among young people who were born in the post-war period.
About 35,000 U.S. troops are stationed on bases in the country. The United States fought alongside South Korea against communist forces in the Korean War and has bolstered South Korean defenses since the fighting ended in armistice. The North and South are technically still at war.
The South remains a close ally of the United States in the region. The country remains one of few among 44 countries in a Pew Charitable Trust where more people than not — 53 percent — had a generally favorable view of the United States. But that percentage was down from 58 percent a year earlier. Among the young, who have no direct memory of the Korean War alliance with the United States, there is more distrust of the United States. Some believe Washington does not want to see a unified Korea.
In a series of televised debates — unprecedented in South Korea — Roh came off well, and his image as the less pro-American candidate helped too. The debates came against a backdrop of massive anti-American rallies — a showing of resentment not seen since the 1980s. Calling for a more “equal” relationship with the United States, Roh called for a revision of the American bases agreement. He lurched forward in the polls. At the end of November, when the last allowable pre-election polls were held, Roh had pulled ahead of Lee.
Though conservative Lee has tried to distance himself from the United States — calling for an apology from President Bush over the girls’ deaths and even conceding that the bases agreement should be altered.
Polls are not allowed in the last days prior to the South Korean elections. But one indicator of the mood will come in the weekend, when anti-American rallies are scheduled — and are expected to be the largest to date. But North Korea’s seeming belligerence may prove a distraction for the crowd.