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Salvaging the Sunshine Policy
Author: David Straub
Published August 13, 2018
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Shortly before his election as South Korea’s president in May 2017, candidate Moon Jaein issued his most detailed North Korea policy statement. As president, he declared, he would “inherit” the engagement-based, inducements-oriented Sunshine Policy approach of Korea’s only other progressive presidents, Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moohyun (2003-2008)1. Moon judged the North Korea policies of his immediate predecessors a failure; Presidents Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-hye (2013-2017), both conservatives, had disagreed with key aspects of the Sunshine Policy and suspended the major inter-Korean projects undertaken by Kim and Roh. Moon’s emphasis on incentives to Pyongyang contrasted with United Nations Security Council resolutions adopted during the preceding decade; far from offering inducements, the UNSC had imposed increasingly stringent sanctions on the regime in response to its accelerating pursuit of a full-fledged nuclear weapons capability. Moon also struck quite a different tone than the new Trump administration in Washington, which had only recently concluded a North Korea policy review and characterized its approach as one of “maximum pressure and engagement.

This chapter assesses Moon’s North Korea policy, its implementation during his initial year in office, and its prospects under difficult circumstances. It begins by reviewing the Sunshine Policy concept, its practice by previous progressive governments, and the significantly different approach of South Korea’s succeeding conservative administrations. It then argues that Moon and many progressives continue to believe in the basic Sunshine Policy approach, even though, unlike when the policy was first formulated, North Korea now already has a limited nuclear weapons capability and may soon be able to credibly threaten the United States homeland with nuclear attack. It reviews how Moon, as president, has attempted to salvage the policy and how North Korea and other concerned countries have responded. The chapter concludes by considering the prospects for Moon’s North Korea policy and offering recommendations to modify it to maximize the interests of both the ROK and the international community as a whole.

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