Some Skeptical About 'Sunshine Policy' in S. Korea

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South Korea's recently inaugurated president has suggested he might take a harder line against North Korea, which could mark the end of South Korea's "Sunshine Policy" of rapprochement with its northern neighbor. However, Lee Myung-bak's position has moderated since the election.

STEVEN INSKEEP, host:

South Korea's recently inaugurated president has signaled that he will strengthen his country's alliance with the United States. While campaigning, he also suggested he might take a harder line against North Korea. That could have marked the end of South Korea's efforts to strengthen ties with its northern neighbor, but the president's position has moderated since the election.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN: In his February 25th inauguration speech, Lee Myung-bak dangled a big fat carrot in front of North Korea. If North Korea agrees to give up its nuclear weapons programs, Lee's administration would set up a $40 billion fund to kickstart the North's stagnant economy.

President LEE MYUNG-BAK (South Korea): (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: Along with the international community, he said, we will provide assistance so that we can raise the per capita income of North Korea to $3,000 within 10 years. That's three times its current per capita income. Of course North Korea giving up its nukes is a very big if.

Professor Huh Moon Young(ph) is a North Korea expert at the Korean Institute for National Unification, a government think tank. He calls Lee Myung-bak's approach an if-then policy.

Professor HUH MOON YOUNG (Korean Institute for National Unification): If-then policy is not good to solve North Korea nuclear problem. My suggestion is parallelism. Solving nuclear problem and North Korea development should be done at the same time.

KUHN: Each side is waiting for the other to make the first move. North Korea is now more than two months late in declaring all its nuclear assets as it pledged it would do. Lee's administration insists that it's not hostile to the North, but it says it will not remain silent on the issue of North Korea's human rights situation. And it doesn't want food aid intended for North Korean civilians diverted to the army. It points to popular skepticism about the Sunshine Policy implemented by the past two presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

Among the skeptics is retiree Ho Soo-young(ph), who is catching some sun on a bench in downtown Seoul.

Mr. HO SOO-YOUNG (Retiree): (Through translator) The Sunshine Policy has really only benefited North Korea, not South Korea. We all know that the North is poor, so we just help them. The Sunshine Policy, after all, means shining the sunlight into dark places.

KUHN: What people think about how Lee Myung-bak should deal with North Korea depends on whether they think Pyongyang is serious about giving up its nukes or not. Professor Paik Hak Soon is a North Korea watcher at the independent Sejong Institute. He believes that North Korea is willing to give up its nukes and adopt economic reforms, but only if the U.S. normalizes relations.

Professor PAIK HAK SOON (Sejong Institute): What North Koreans say to Americans is this: we want to expand our (unintelligible) to feed our own people and to find a way for the survival of our country. But as long as you threaten us with - militarily or anything like that, we have to be very cautious, we can't open our society.

KUHN: Paik warns that failure to make progress on the nuclear issue soon increases the risk that North Korea will remain a nuclear state. But North Korea's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a recent commentary that it was in no hurry to resolve the nuclear issue before the change of administrations in Washington.

And as to speculation about how a new U.S. administration might treat North Korea, the commentary said, we don't care who becomes the next U.S. president.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

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