While not only sugar and honey, the context back then was undoubtedly more stable than what we have seen since 2008. The Sunshine Policy was showing signs of working. It was able to move further despite provocations, and even if some components failed, the policy stood strong. For a strategy in place for only 10 years, out of which 5 were lacking support from North Korea’s main enemy, the US, its successes are hard to ignore.
Today, North Korea has tested four nuclear weapons in the last four years, a period during which it has launched an average of almost two missiles a month. If in 2008 the international community was talking about the success of Kaesong and their hope for a more opened North Korea, from then on the spotlight was stolen by provocative acts ending in losses of lives (such as the sinking of the Cheonan, when 46 South Koreans died) and war declarations. If, at the beginning of the century, unification seemed possible, today it is brought up only in the context of North Korea’s collapse. On the other side of the 38th parallel, South Korea is enhancing the range and payload of its missiles and preparing options to decapitate the North Korean leadership, while asking the United States to bring back tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. No foreign leader is contemplating a visit to Pyongyang. There is no more Kaesong, no more Kumgang and no more interaction between the two Koreas.
Critics of the Sunshine Policy call it limited, and they are right in some respects, for it couldn’t convince North Korea to ditch its nuclear weapons. However, some goals-adjustment is needed if we ever want to solve the problem with the North. Any workable policy needs to acknowledge that the possibility of Kim Jong-un agreeing to dismantle his nuclear program is close to, if not, zero. Nuclear weapons assure the survival of his regime. Today, no matter how much the US considers war a viable option, it would bring about a horrible fight ending with an uncountable loss of lives, no matter the side of the parallel you’re on. Additionally, nuclear weapons serve Kim Jong-un with a negotiation tool that is extremely valuable to a regime that has very little leverage. Kim Jong-un knows very well who Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein were, and would hate to share their fate. As such, one should naturally infer that his nuclear weapons are simply too valuable to renounce.
If a policy must start from the premise of a nuclear-armed North Korea, how can we work around the threat it poses? We need to assess the probability of the North using its nuclear weapons, because only then do they become a real problem. North Korea knows that its nukes are a workable deterrent, but it also knows that any war waged, with or without them, will ultimately lead to the regime’s demise. Since that isn’t in Kim Jong-un’s interest, we can conclude that North Korea will choose war only if the regime’s demise is unavoidable either way. That is, either somebody (the US) decides to attack the North or the North is dying on its own from years of decaying economy and no friends to call for help. That is the scenario that the present economic sanctions, deterrence and aggressive rhetoric are in the process of constructing, and it benefits no-one. However, the Sunshine Policy would do the exact opposite.