No South Korean leader generated such dreams as did Kim Dae-jung, who died on Tuesday. His five-year presidency, and his "sunshine policy" of reconciliation with North Korea reached its spectacular height in June 2000, when he flew to Pyongyang for the first-ever inter-Korean summit. North Korean "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il hosted him in an atmosphere of confidence that the half-century of war and confrontation between the two Koreas was nearing an end. In a joint declaration, the two Kims agreed to resolve "humanitarian" issues, reopen borders and unite families. Four months later, Kim Dae-jung won the Nobel Peace Prize.
But although the "sunshine policy" was a glimmering through the dark clouds of the North-South confrontation, it was a misguided effort doomed to fail. Soon enough, the hopes engendered by the summit were shattered. Like every other attempt at rapprochement, the declaration's promises were meaningless.
Only 16,000 members of divided families, among several hundred thousand still alive all these years after the Korean War, ever saw each other. There are still no mail or telephone privileges. Visits to North Korea, when the North chooses to allow them, are tightly controlled and monitored. The industrial complex at Kaesong and the tourist zone at Mt. Kumkang have seemed to open and close at will, depending on mood swings in Pyongyang.
Above all, North Korea refuses to give up its nuclear weapons and missile programs, to scale down its 1.1-million-man military establishment, to pull back forces ranged above the demilitarized zone that still divides the two Koreas or to stop horrific abuses of human rights.
How could Kim's "sunshine policy" of reconciliation have been such a disappointment?
For a decade, during his presidency and that of his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea sent hundreds of thousands of tons of fertilizer and food to North Korea every year. Neither Kim nor Roh asked anything in return other than expressions of goodwill and signs of cooperation in the form of trade and visits. Neither of them had a clue that North Korea all the while was forging ahead with a program for developing nuclear weapons with highly enriched uranium. This was a blatant violation of an agreement reached with the United States in Geneva in 1994, under which Pyongyang made a show of shutting down its nuclear complex.
Kim Dae-jung never abandoned the cause, even after North Korea in October 2002 acknowledged the existence of the uranium program when pressed by a visiting U.S. delegation led by James Kelly, U.S. assistant secretary of State for East Asia. Instead, Kim strove to persuade George W. Bush throughout his presidency to give up the supposedly hard-line policy in which Bush called for verification of any nuclear claim made by Kim Jong Il. By the time Kim Dae-jung stepped down in 2003, the Geneva agreement was history.
Nor was the collapse of the Geneva agreement the only disillusionment. It was later revealed that Kim Dae-jung had sanctioned the transfer of $500 million to North Korea to persuade Kim Jong Il to agree to the 2000 summit. The question after that revelation involved the extent to which the funds not only propped up the Pyongyang regime but helped to fund its military establishment and nuclear program.
The "sunshine policy" endured through Roh's presidency, but South Koreans tired of the costly policy of appeasement that necessitated constant concessions by Seoul.
Then, in 2007, a conservative, Lee Myung-bak, a former top executive of the Hyundai empire, won the presidency by a lopsided majority. South Koreans wanted something in return for the forgiveness their government had shown for North Korea's broken promises. "Sunshine" faded into a sunset in which North Korea called Lee a "traitor" and a "lackey" of the United States.
There was an incredible irony here. The Bush administration by then had shifted course. Christopher Hill, who succeeded Kelly, worked out deals in six-party talks during which North Korea agreed to specific plans for disabling and dismantling its nukes. (Kim Dae-jung accused Bush of having delayed reconciliation with his previous policies.) Roh, meeting with Kim Jong Il in October 2007, appeared to have come to terms on plans for rebuilding North Korea's infrastructure, including ports and railroads.
Hill should have known better. All the agreements for North Korea to give up its nuclear program were nonsense. Pyongyang, now furious about Lee's firm policy and his refusal to hand out more food and fertilizer for nothing, has loudly renounced them. The North tested a second nuclear device in May after firing a long-range missile in April.
The "sunshine policy" was a mirage. The North Korea problem is a nightmare in which firmness, in the form of United Nations sanctions and stronger measures if needed, remains the only valid, viable response to a dictatorship that exists only to perpetuate its harsh rule over its people -- and, if given the chance, all the Korean peninsula.