South Korea: Use Carrots, Not Sticks

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The U.S. ally most unnerved by some of the post 9/11 rhetoric in Washington — particularly the lumping of North Korea into an "axis of evil," and ruminations about possible regime change in Pyongyang — was South Korea. For nearly a decade now, Seoul has pursued what it calls its "Sunshine" policy toward Pyongyang, consisting mostly of carrots rather than sticks. South Korea seeks to increase trade, aid and investment in the North in the hope that such engagement will calm tensions across the last Cold War frontline, ostensibly helping North Korea reform its way out of Stalinism and isolation. By the same logic, South Korea also demurs from anything that might force a confrontation with the North. Seoul has balked, for example, at U.S. requests for robust help in the so-called Proliferation Security Initiative — the attempt to limit WMD proliferation by, if need be, interdicting suspect ships at sea. (Seoul does cooperate in the PSI on a more limited, intelligence-sharing basis.)

The Six-Party Meetings: Analysis and Issues

•Washington: Limited Patience

•North Korea: What Pyongyang Wants

•China: Feeling the Heat

•South Korea: Use Carrots, Not Sticks

•Japan: Abductions Cloud the Issue

•Russia: Trying to Look Relevant

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The South's reluctance to use sticks as well as carrots in dealing with North Korea reflects the fact that it puts a higher priority on "stability" than on achieving a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. And what, exactly, does "stability" mean? Seoul's definition is pretty much the same as the one used in Beijing: As long as North Koreans aren't starving to death and trying to flee across its borders in droves, and as long as the North Korean government is intact and not threatening to bombard prosperous Seoul residents with artillery fire across the 38th parallel, Dear Leader Kim Jong-il can pretty much do as he pleases.

South Korea's approach to getting Kim to give up his nukes, then, is — to put it crudely — to bribe him. Power plants, investment promises, direct aid, security guarantees — whatever it takes. President Roh Moo Hyun privately believes it would be best if the U.S. agreed to direct talks with Pyongyang to persuade the regime to make a deal, but President Bush has insisted on the multilateral approach, and so Seoul has used the on-again, off-again six-party talks to push its Sunshine approach on a reluctant Washington.

That the U.S. has now moved away from its confrontational approach and is seeking a deal is taken with some satisfaction in South Korea. Seoul liked the 1994 Agreed Framework arrangement that the Clinton Administration worked out with Pyongyang, and believes the North should be given another chance at signing a similar deal now, even if it didn't exactly abide by the spirit of the 1994 agreement. (It secretly pursued a plutonium-based nuclear program after giving up uranium enrichment.) If — and at this point, it is a big if — the six-party talks do produce a deal of some sort, the key question on the Korean peninsula going forward will be: What happens if North Korea is caught cheating a second time? That could be the end of "Sunshine" in the South for along time to come.