Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Moon Chung-in’s Vision of Sunshine

By and | November 10, 2012 | No Comments

As a companion to  Esther Eunsil Park’s special review of Moon Chung-in’s latest book, The Sunshine Policy: in Defense of Engagement as a Path to Peace in Korea, SinoNK editors Christopher Green and Steven Denney give their own critical take on Moon’s spirited defense of the sunshine policy as a roadmap to inter-Korean reconciliation. — Christopher Green, Assistant Editor

Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Moon Chung-in’s Vision of Sunshine

by Christopher Green and Steven Denney

Back in the Day: Into the Sunlight | Fifteen years ago when Kim Dae-jung emerged victorious from the December 1997 South Korean presidential poll, it was not only the people of Korea who were excited to see what this new type of leader, one with unimpeachable moral authority, would do to the way the country, especially its North Korea policy, was run.

The “Sunshine Policy” that resulted was, as Professor Moon Chung-in notes in his latest book, rooted in a valid political and economic logic. It would ill-behoove us to claim otherwise; Seoul was not, let us be clear, merely “paying the Danegeld.”

However, Moon’s attendant claim that the policy failed mostly because the United States wasn’t willing to play the game, meaning that the North Korean government never stopped believing that it was facing an existential threat and thus felt unable to repay any of the faith Seoul was putting in it, is surely little more than a convenient rhetorical wheeze by which to explain a history of events that would otherwise be wholly fatal to Moon’s heroic struggle to construct a raison d’etre for reviving the policy in its original form at the present time. That is to say, a raison d’etre beyond the obvious: namely, that aid and assistance make affluent people feel better about their own wealth when so many are suffering in egregious conditions just a few hundred kilometers away, and that in the logical framework of what B.R. Myers likes to call an “economy-first state,” it is implicitly assumed that if you pay enough money for something, you’ll get your desired outcome.

For it is only feasible to gloss over or explain away events including the First Battle of Yeonpyeong in 1999, the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong in 2002 and North Korea’s debut nuclear detonation in 2006, all of which occurred out in the very deep sunshine, if one has a scapegoat to blame, thus carving out a space for the conclusion that the policy failure was part and parcel of Pyongyang’s fear for its own security.

Former Korean Workers’ Party secretary and later democratization activist Hwang Jang-yop | Image via Daily NK

Betrayed by the Times: Philosopher Hwang Defects | It is said that whenever Hwang Jang-yop heard the name Kim Dae-jung, he would seize the arms of his chair and shake with incandescent anger. Hwang felt betrayed by Kim, and this was not terribly surprising; the philosophical Hwang was never given sufficient opportunity to explain how the Kim Jong-il regime worked, instead finding himself confined to his home, yes for his own security but equally because the kind of truths he was sure to tell (and did, for those able to attend his heavily guarded weekly Tuesday afternoon “Democracy Lecture”) would not have been at all beneficial to the argument for sunshine that was then being put forward in the corridors of power.

However, Hwang’s death in 2010 has done nothing to reduce the likelihood of these truths coming out; in fact, with the number of formerly high-ranking North Koreans living in South Korea now far greater than it was back in 1997 when both Kim’s election and Hwang’s defection took place within a single twelve-month spell, that likelihood has risen. Nevertheless Moon, perhaps with one eye on the probable employment opportunities on offer in a future Moon Jae-in administration that has vowed to turn back the clock and rush headlong back into the sun, has reacted to this not with a swift re-think, but by redoubling his ambitious, nay herculean, effort to ignore all these inconvenient truths completely.

In other words, Moon appears to be employing what Blackadder’s inestimable half-wit General Melchett would recognize as “a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face.”

But should this come as a surprise? After all, Moon is also a leading proponent of the idea that the Cheonan was not sunk by the North Korean military, a position deemed sufficiently indefensible by another anonymous figure cut from impeccably progressive cloth that he was moved to comment with a resigned sigh, “Yes, but we all know academics should never get involved in politics. Look what happened to Bruce Cumings.”

Overlooking Party Politics: No Program, No Summit | Moon, throughout the book, holds Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moon-hyun to little account; though he identifies the criticisms leveled against both administrations by conservatives, he partakes in no such dance himself. The lack of balanced criticism is itself sufficient grounds to be highly skeptical of Moon’s intent. However, we will, for the sake of engaging the issues, look beyond this shortcoming for the time being.

In Chapter 3, Moon discusses the second inter-Korean summit, focusing specifically on the October 4 Joint Declaration and its subsequent failure with reference to both foreign and domestic factors. Near the end of the chapter, he moves squarely inside national borders, focusing specifically on domestic reasons for the Sunshine Policy’s failure. He states:

President Roh had decided to hold the summit despite his government having fewer than five months left. He expected that once inter-Korean agreements were formalized through talks at summit level, prime ministerial level and ministerial level, then a new leader, even if from the opposition party, would honor such agreements [p. 70].

This, of course, did not happen. In addition to hanging the noose of responsibility on President Lee Myung-bak, who “did not appear to see [honoring the agreement] as an obligation,” Moon also accuses the “black-and-white polarity of South Korean politics” as playing no small role in “derailing the progress made from the October 4 Joint Declaration.”

Moon’s relatively one-sided overview of the Sunshine Policy years certainly does not help improve the “black-and-white polarity” that does, at times, seem to permeate South Korean politics to a degree that makes disagreements between American Republicans and Democrats look almost trivial. This point we will cede to Moon, with one major caveat. Moon, though right to say that uncompromising politics is bad for policy, fails to take a more systematic view of South Korean politics. Specifically, he fails to acknowledge the absence of a programmatic political system through which policy debates are had and politicking takes place.

Political parties in South Korea do not run on platforms or adhere to ideologies, i.e. things that endure. These are the traits of programmatic political systems. Instead, political parties in this yet unconsolidated democracy are based on individuals and their ability to exercise the amount of charisma necessary to capture the electorate’s collective fascination, party credentials be dammed. In a programmatic system, summits, an unambiguous North Korea policy, and the like could, indeed, be institutionalized. This would, however, require that something like summit meetings first be adopted as a clear policy objective within a broader platform, instead of being acts of magnanimity by individual politicians, e.g. Kim Dae-jung and, to a lesser extent, Roh Moo-hyun.  The institutionalization of summits would require that political parties first be institutionalized, which under current conditions they are not. Though Moon claims that inter-Korean relations had been (see p. 72), the fact that inter-Korean relations fell through the roof, more or less, upon Lee Myung-bak entering office suggests otherwise. It is telling that Moon does not associate the Sunshine Policy with any political party but only with two people. As the title of a recent article discussing this very issue reads: “Personality politics stifle Korean democracy.” They also stifle North Korean policies and the institutionalization of summit meetings.

Conclusion: Repetition Does Not Guarantee Success | We do not know a single person in Seoul today who seriously thinks that continuation of the existing hardline North Korea policy is a good idea, and nor should our criticism of Moon Chung-in’s self-serving text be taken as evidence of that thought in us. Even though Kim Jong-il is said to have rather respected President Lee for his belligerent unwillingness to be moved by threats of violence (two men cut from similar cloth, one might say!) it is still clearly time to talk to North Korea and provide the opportunity for a more productive relationship, for it is impossible to change a country if you don’t talk to it at all, and refusal to talk at all only gives the wonks of the Party Propaganda and Agitation Department a free hand to paint you any way they wish.

However, Moon’s text is no roadmap for the kind of engagement that is needed. He doesn’t engage the issues, sidesteps much of the legitimate criticism, and fails to look at any of the deeper, structural issues plaguing South Korean democracy. Rather, he employs some extremely questionable assumptions in his overview of the Sunshine Policy’s failure, and through them reveals a path to an even more questionable conclusion: that the folly of the past was no folly, and that repeating it is the best way to embrace the future.

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  1. You need to know we regard Mr. Moon as a politician not an academic in Seoul. haha~

  2. Yes, I completely agree with that. But, for the time being at least, he does draw a pay cheque from an academic institution!

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