North Korea and Contending South Korean Identities: Analysis of the South Korean Media; Policy Implications for the United States

After North Korea’s nuclear test on 9 October 2006, the fate of South Korea’s engagement policy with North Korea seemed to hang in the balance. To many, the nuclear test stood as a clear indictment of the Sunshine Policy and its successor, President Roh Moo-hyun’s Peace and Prosperity Policy. After years of investment and aid to the North under these policies, South Korea appeared to have received little in return. Conservative lawmakers charged that the nuclear test amounted to the “death penalty” for the Sunshine Policy, and former president Kim Young-sam proclaimed that the policy “should be thrown into a trash can.” Roh’s unification minister apologized to the National Assembly.

But others did not see the nuclear test as a verdict on South Korean engagement of the North. To more progressive forces, including the Roh administration, this is not a story of inter-Korean cause and effect; engagement represents a much larger inter- Korean effort, while the nuclear issue is rooted in problematic U.S.-DPRK relations. In their view, the nuclear test occurred because the Bush administration has taken a hard line with North Korea, creating an environment—featuring “regime change” rhetoric and the preemptive-strike doctrine—that spurred the North to pursue weapons considered the ultimate guarantee of security. The Sunshine Policy cannot be held to account for ruinous U.S.-DPRK relations, though such a circumstance can hinder inter-Korean engagement. While Roh offered a careful, politically calibrated suggestion to the public in the wake of the nuclear test, saying he “would like to suggest that we take time to figure out the causal relationship between the engagement policy and the nuclear test,” former president Kim Dae-jung pressed the progressive perspective in no uncertain terms, offering a direct, clamant answer: “North Korea has never said it would develop nuclear weapons because of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy. It said that it was developing nuclear weapons as a last resort to survive, because the United States was hard on the country.”