North-South Relations Suffer A Sudden Chill
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
SEOUL, Oct. 10 -- Like so many other South Koreans, Lee Won Son, a gaunt 97-year-old watchmaker, will remember Monday's professed nuclear test by North Korea as the day night began to fall on the "sunshine policy."
The policy, launched by Seoul, had since the late 1990s provided the impoverished North with financial benefits and a road map for national reunification. It had also offered tens of thousands of South Koreans the prospect of reuniting with their loved ones, relatives in the North who had been completely shut off from the world in the aftermath of the 1950-53 Korean War. For Lee, who in 1949 had left his family in the North to prepare for the new life they hoped for in the South, there was no greater prize the Pyongyang government could have offered.
But Monday's reported test cast a sudden chill on North-South relations, stalling Seoul's financial incentives to the North and indefinitely ending nearly eight years of emotive family reunions. Though about 13,000 families have briefly come together under the watchful eyes of North Korean guards, Lee's turn to glimpse the sons and daughters he last saw sleeping in their beds nearly 60 years ago had yet to come up. Aging and ailing, he said he now fears it never will.
"The joy I felt when I first signed up for the reunions was indescribable -- such elation at the thought of seeing even one of my children again," he said, slipping a bony finger under his watchmaker's monocle to dry his tears. "But the North Koreans have robbed me of my chance. They have tricked us and deceived us, using our hearts to open our wallets. All they wanted was South Korean money, and now they've tested this thing, this bomb. They have what they wanted and I've lost hope of ever seeing my family again."
Lee's views echo the changing sentiments across South Korea in the wake of Monday's purported test, which was something of a national wake-up call in a country where the perception of a North Korean threat had all but evaporated after years of detente.
For North-South relations, the biggest potential casualty of the announced test appears to be the sunshine policy itself -- a concept fashioned by Kim Dae Jung, then South Korean president, in a historic bid to end Cold War tensions on the peninsula. Kim received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.
South Korean officials say it is too early to declare that detente is dead, noting that it may take as long as two weeks to determine whether the explosion detected in North Korea was indeed a nuclear test or merely a bizarre bluff using massive amounts of nonnuclear explosives. Officials also are waiting for the lead of the U.N. Security Council, which is considering sanctions against the North.
But for now, the South Korean government is taking the North's claim at face value, leaving many of the leading voices for detente here to express a profound sense of shock and betrayal. A number of them are calling for a complete review of the policy they had long held up as the cornerstone of Korea's eventual reunification. Many are advocating an accelerated policy of disengagement, which had already begun in the aftermath of the Pyongyang government's July 4 ballistic missile tests.
In the most significant step to date, President Roh Moo Hyun -- who had become South Korea's leading voice for engagement -- effectively acknowledged on Monday that the sunshine policy had failed.
"The South Korean government at this point cannot continue to say that this engagement policy is effective," Roh said in a nationally televised news conference after the North announced a test. "Ultimately, it is not something we should give up on, but objectively speaking the situation has changed. Being patient and accepting whatever North Korea does is no longer acceptable."
Following the July missile launches, South Korea suspended regular humanitarian aid shipments to the North -- an act that led the North Koreans to halt the North-South family reunions. Construction ceased on a multimillion-dollar pavilion meant to host the reunions.
Now, South Korean government sources say, Seoul is reviewing whether to suspend the two biggest pillars of the sunshine policy -- the massive Kaesong industrial park and the Kumgang Mountain tourism resort on the northern side of the border. Those facilities were built and managed by South Koreans and employ thousands of North Koreans.
The three-year-old industrial park, a major source of hard currency for the North Koreans, currently houses more than a dozen South Korean factories, which have helped account for the dramatic boost in inter-Korean trade, from $425 million in 2000 to more than $1 billion last year. A suspension of the project would mark a huge step for South Korea and is still strongly opposed by some leaders members of Roh's ruling Uri Party, as well as by the South Korean companies that have invested millions of dollars to set up shop in the North. Its suspension would also amount to a painful financial hit for North Korea, which collects nearly $700,000 a month from salaries, rent and fees there.
"The test proved how incompetent our government has been with North Korea," said Na Kyung Won, spokesman for the opposition Grand National Party. "The Kaesong and Mount Kumgang projects are a direct cash route for the North Koreans, and we should immediately abandon these projects that give them much-needed cash."
In a sign that the Roh administration is increasingly serious about dimming the lights on the sunshine policy, the semiofficial agency in charge of Kaesong's expansion said on Tuesday that it would indefinitely suspend the approval process for new companies seeking to open factories there.
That marks a radical shift in thinking in South Korea, where public opinion had dramatically swung in favor of North Korea in recent years, even as anti-Americanism rose to record levels.
"Everything changed on Monday," said Ko Gi Gwan, a 58-year-old street vendor in Seoul's sprawling Great South Gate market who said he had supported the sunshine policy for years. "The North Koreans showed us their true faces. We gave them gifts of rice and money, but now look what they have given us -- something we never wanted, nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula."
Even if dusk falls only temporarily on the sunshine policy, those like Lee, the watchmaker, may not last long enough to see its resumption. Tens of thousands of people remain on a waiting list for family reunions.
"All I wanted was a chance to look my children in the eye and tell them how sorry I am -- sorry that I left them too early, and that they got stuck in North Korea," Lee said, his voice trembling. "Not a day goes by without my thinking of the conditions they grew up in. I just wish I could have given them a deep bow of apology before I go."