By Walden Bello
The future of President Kim Dae Jung’s “Sunshine Policy”–the most promising opportunity in years to melt the glacial structures of the Cold War in Northeast Asia—is now in question.

This became crystal clear during Kim’s recent visit to Washington where US President George W. Bush and his aides all but spelled out disapproval of his bold rapprochement with North Korea. Even before his visit, the Sunshine Policy was already in danger from the new administration’s expressed determination to build an anti-ballistic missile defense (ABM) system–one that would include a “theater missile defense (TMD) system” for Japan and the region. Fearing that this move would derail its effort to convince North Korea to give up its ballistic missile program, Kim joined visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin in issuing a joint statement of support for the 1972 US-Soviet treaty that bans anti-missile weapons systems. Though Seoul later tried to dilute the meaning of its gesture, it was clear to the rest of the world that, for the first time in over five decades, the two allies had experienced an open break in security policy.

Withdrawal Syndrome

Though its concerns were muted during the Clinton administration, the US security establishment was never comfortable with Kim’s reconciliation policy with the North. The big fear was that rapprochement would bring into question the presence of the large US military presence on the peninsula, where 37,000 American troops are forward-deployed. South Korea, as noted expert Chalmers Johnson has pointed out, is a Pentagon colony. Continuing occupation, however, demands a credible justification. So long as South Koreans shared Washington’s image of North Korean chief Kim Jong-Il as a megalomaniacal despot, there was no problem. But when Kim Jong-Il was transformed into a long lost beloved brother during Kim Dae-Jung’s visit to Pyongyang in June, the nightmare of an eventual pullout began to haunt the Pentagon, and no amount of soothing words from the South Korean leader about the need for US troops and bases into the indefinite future could reassure the US military establishment.

But the reasons for the hardening US position go beyond the Pentagon’s wishing to maintain its position on the peninsula. Since the mid-1990’s, US military strategy, at both the global and regional level, has gradually reoriented been reoriented around the premise of a deepening strategic rivalry with China. The Asia 2025 Study, which the Pentagon hardly kept confidential, identified China consistently as the main threat to US interests in six war-game scenarios covering South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. Even during the Clinton administration, the security elite had evinced discomfort with the Democrats’ China policy, which put the emphasis on “engagement” rather than containment. With the Bush administration, containment has become the dominant aspect of the policy, and a central thrust is tightening the military cordon sanitaire around China. The troops and bases in Korea–the only US beachhead on the Asian mainland–are vital elements of the American noose.

Fundamental Flaw

The South Korean leader has the choice of freezing the process and pleasing the Americans or going forward and risking not only non-cooperation but possibly even Washington-supported destabilization. This dilemma highlights the fundamental flaw of the policy: that it has been for the most part a highly controlled, personality-driven process where most of South Korean society was relegated to the sidelines, with little function but to applaud. Not surprisingly, most Koreans, while obviously cheered by the reconciliation process, felt detached from it, feeling no personal responsibility for its success or failure.

This personal distance from the process was driven home to me while discussing future economic strategies for Korea with progressive Korean economists. Even when taking the long view, none of them brought the integration of the North Korean market into their calculations. For all intents and purposes, a unified Korea remains a distant dream, and the lack of significant domestic protest against Washington’s recalcitrance is the most damning proof of this.

Not too late

It is not too late, however, to bring the Korean people along. Kim should now reach out to all sectors of society, not to ask them to have faith in him and his judgment, but to actively bring them into the process, to encourage them to make their own unique contributions to this patriotic enterprise.

In addition, President Kim should solicit the active backing of the governments and peoples of the Asia-Pacific region, underlining how a reconciled, if not reunified, Korea is one of the most critical keys to lasting regional peace.

Mobilized domestic and regional constituencies for reconciliation and reunification are key to cracking the stalemate between Kim and Washington.

* Walden Bello is the Executive Director of Focus on the Global South