Last week's naval battle between North and South Korean warships sank more than a South Korean frigate. It also probably sank the "Sunshine Policy" of rapprochement with North Korea that once appeared to be the crowning achievement of Kim Dae Jung's presidency in South Korea.
Two years have passed since Kim Dae Jung and North Korea's Chairman Kim Jong Il met in Pyongyang, the North's impoverished capital. Since then, Kim Jong Il has failed to make his promised return visit to Seoul. That failure suggests that North Korea's fundamental hostility to the South remains unabated.
Why? We can only speculate that North Korea's military is resisting any real change because the regime's survival depends on its "military first" politics. So long as North Korea's military remains the guardian of the regime by advocating this doctrine, it will be impossible for Kim Jong Il to change his country's ruling domestic and foreign policies.
Many explanations for the North's aggressive behavior are in contention in the South. Perhaps North Korea wanted to disrupt the World Cup tournament that South Korea was co-hosting with Japan and in which South Korea's national team had achieved stunning success. More plausible is the idea that the North wanted to deliver a message: it does not want to be ignored by the South, the US, China, or any other concerned party. Whatever its motivations, one thing is clear: North Korea is not going to help President Kim sustain the "Sunshine Policy" as the primary legacy of his government after he leaves office in February 2003.
North Korea's relations with America are also at a new low water mark. Just before the naval skirmish broke out, the Bush administration sent Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly to Pyongyang to probe North Korea on missile and nuclear weapon proliferation and conventional forces. Nothing came of that visit. So the trend is worrying. In February, President Bush declared the North a member of the "axis of evil" and in March the Pentagon singled North Korea as a possible target for a preemptive nuclear strike should it invade South Korea.
In April the Bush administration refused to certify that North Korea is abiding by the 1994 agreement to freeze its nuclear weapons program. Now America is asking that North Korea accept International Atomic Energy Agency inspection on its nuclear sites. The US wants to find out whether the North is hiding nuclear weapon materials before South Korean workers begin to create the foundations for the two light water nuclear reactors promised in that 1994 agreement. North Korea must also soon declare whether or not it will continue its declared moratorium on testing ballistic missile in early 2003.
Unlike the Clinton administration, which saw engagement with North Korea as a goal in itself, the Bush administration is focused on preventing North Korean missiles sales to "rogue" regimes like Iran, ensuring verified compliance with international obligation on nuclear safeguards, and reducing conventional military forces along the border with South Korea. So America is committed to what can only be called "conditional engagement" with the North as part of its global campaign against international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
The "Sunshine Policy" is on the defensive in South Korean domestic politics, too. The unilateral and persistent way in which President Kim and his associates pursued their opening to the North caused enormous divisiveness on an issue over which the country was usually very united. Opponents of Mr. Kim's policy point out that the South keeps making concessions without gaining anything from the North in return.
During last month's local government campaign, indeed, Mr. Lee Hoi-Chang, the opposition Grand National Party Candidate for president, repeatedly emphasized the principle of reciprocity and vowed to abrogate the "Kim/Kim" summit agreement if Kim Jong Il's government continued to insist that the South accept the North's terms for the constitutional construction of a reunified Korea. President Kim Dae Jung's opponents romped to victory in a landslide that suggests the unpopularity of his policies.
There is little doubt that the naval confrontation in which four South Korean sailors were killed further damaged President Kim's credibility on policy toward the North. President Kim himself demanded an apology, but the North only accused South Korea of initiating an armed provocation against it. Unless the North reverses this position, President Kim's efforts to stick to the "Sunshine Policy" will look increasingly weak in the eyes of South Korea's public. Such a perception will make it hard for his successor - whoever he is - to revitalize the "Sunshine Policy" even if he wants to do so.
Despite its seeming slow death, the "Sunshine Policy" did deliver benefits. Primarily, it opened North Korea to South Korea and the world. As a result, North Korea has begun to enter the international system and its dependence on South Korea, the US, China and other donors has deepened. But it is also true that this opening failed to change North Korea's behavior in any fundamental way.