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Korean Elections Will Cast Pall Over 'Sunshine Policy'

With a new and harsher president in the South, tensions with the North will rise.

June 05, 2002|RANAN R. LURIE | Ranan R. Lurie is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a syndicated columnist and political cartoonist.

On Dec. 19, a day after the South Korean presidential election, the world will add a panic button to the two existing ones: The dangers of the North-South Korean conflict will join the Middle East and Kashmir perils.

Without a doubt, Kim Dae Jung, South Korea's good-natured president, will be replaced with a tougher, "get the communists" president who will take a no-nonsense approach toward the most isolated dictatorship today: North Korea.

Thriving South Korea is a proud nation that suffered tremendously throughout the last century, and it is eager to carve out a respectable niche among the advanced nations of the world.

Recently, it invested a fortune--$1.4billion--to build 10 gorgeous stadiums, where some of this month's World Cup soccer matches will be held.

South Korea is also a socially conscious nation, with a deep desire to support its poor and elderly citizens with a social infrastructure. It is a culture that respects age. It is also a nation that won't allow any disturbance of its economic security.

South Korea has two strong conflicting undercurrents. One is its people's sincere love and concern for their North Korean brethren, their flesh and blood (there are 10million people in North and South Korea whose main dream is to be united with their families on the other side of the border).

The other undercurrent is the knowledge of the devastating financial effect that unification would have on the South's growing economy. The South Koreans noticed the ramifications of the fusion of East and West Germany and started to bite their nails with anxiety.

The dream of unification, if it comes true, would catapult the South Koreans back to the early postwar years of scarcity. It would take care of the North but would sink the South into the poverty it just managed to crawl out of a few years ago.

When I visited President Kim in July 1998, he introduced me to his foreign, defense and economic ministers. They told me of their plans and hopes, which seemed somewhat innocent and trusting.

I noted that, when they were looking at the picture of the "big sunrise of unification," they may have been ignoring the devilish details.

Kim was very curious to hear what impression his Cabinet made on foreigners. It was like visiting a remote uncle who had a new invention, and he was eager for the world to learn of it. In Kim's case, it was his "sunshine policy" toward the North. Its principle was basically to stretch two hands toward North Korea, one carrying an olive branch and the other offering the communist brethren Coca-Cola and grain--with reunification as a goal. (Food is an important psychological factor in the Koreas because of the long years of war that devastated the people's ability to produce food. When I was the president's guest at his home for a breakfast, his wife smilingly growled at me for leaving food on the plate.)

The "sunshine policy" initially went well.

Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize for his idea. Dozens of North and South Korean families held emotional reunions in front of television cameras. Kim Dae Jung shook hands with North Korean President Kim Jong Il.

Yet the North proved to be stubborn and insisted on having things its way. The policy is now faltering.

The South Koreans--smart, earthy and hard-working--on Dec. 18 will have to choose between serious economic sacrifices and pleasing their emotional needs for their unification dream.

Chances are that the North will confront in December a new, harsher, pragmatic South Korean president, a lawyer named Lee Hoi Chang. He will talk tough and carry a big stick.

Come midnight Dec. 18, add the third panic button.

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