Letter from Seoul: Sunset Approaches

Around the world, all eyes are trained on Pyongyang after North Korea's latest nuclear provocation.

Around the world, all eyes are trained on Pyongyang after North Korea's latest nuclear provocation. But in Seoul, a quiet revolution of realism is underway-one that portends the wholesale jettisoning of Kim Dae-jung's tottering Sunshine Policy. With presidential elections but two months away, revelations of North Korean duplicity is but one more nail in the coffin of a policy that believed appeasement could guarantee security. While the rest of the world weighs the implications of a "rogue state" possessing nuclear weaponry, South Koreans, acclimated to living with a constant threat from their northern neighbor, are instead focusing on the implications for their own political future. Their conclusion: out with appeasement, in with deterrence, and back to the basics--maintaining a robust alliance with the United States.

The anti-American protest bug of concern to so many Western Korea-watchers has skipped nary a beat redirecting its ire toward Pyongyang. The day after the nuclear announcement, in Seoul, hundreds of veterans hit the streets to protest nuclear blackmail. "We are cheated! All the soldiers are angry!", their placards declared. "Don't finance North Korea!", others implored. Not that you'd know it from the American media, which relies on damning poll data to document an alleged flourishing of Korean anti-Americanism. It just isn't so. A revolution is brewing, and it begins at the top, with the end of Kim Dae-jung's cynical Sunshine Policy.

The revolution is long overdue. Kim's scandal-ridden administration limped through the spring but faced renewed challenges by the late summer and early fall, when his political enemies unleashed their most damaging allegations to date. Among the most harmful: the Kim Administration covertly and illicitly channeled large sums of money to North Korea--essentially, paying protection money to the "Beloved Leader." For weeks, Kim and allies have been denying allegations that his administration laundered a loan as large as $400 million from the state-run Korea Development Bank through Hyundai Merchant Marine, a major Korean shipping concern, into the coffers of the intelligence services, and then on to North Korea. Opposition lawmaker Lee Jae-oh, floor leader of the Grand National Party (GNP) in the National Assembly, is leading the charge against Kim.

"I have confirmed that in June 2000," Lee told Korean reporters with the JoongAng Ilbo in late September, "Hyundai Merchant Marine drew bank checks [in the amount of $325 million] and handed the checks over to the intelligence service." Kim Moon-soo, another Kim Dae-jung opponent in the legislature, claimed that "after the money was laundered, it was transferred to numerous overseas accounts and then to the accounts prearranged by the North."

For what purpose? If the allegations are true, it would appear Kim Dae-jung hoped to entice Kim Jong-il into keeping the Sunshine Policy alive. This seems logical, given that mid-2000 marked both the pinnacle of the Sunshine Policy's prestige, and the cresting of the conciliatory gestures Kim Jong-il was prepared to proffer. Moreover, it was in the interests of influential foreign actors--the Clinton Administration and the Nobel Committee among them--that the Sunshine Policy appear to be a viable solution to defusing tensions on the Korean peninsula. The government is refusing to investigate the incident, which only fuels the fires of public suspicion.

The fallout from the scandal, combined with the clash with North Korean gunboats this summer and the revelations about North Korea's nuclear weapons program, has produced a deadly synergy with other allegations that Kim neglected military readiness, allowed the Navy to decay and abused the independence of the intelligence services. Kim's cohorts in the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) are defecting by the dozen from the administration and its failed policies-threatening the very integrity of Kim's party. "The public has left the MDP," as one renegade faction of thirty-four MDP legislators described the situation earlier this month. The faction promptly terminated its support for Kim's nominee to succeed him as president. Another group that has broken with Kim includes within its ranks the MDP candidate for mayor of Seoul, a crucial post. Twenty-three more legislators are scheduled to defect from the MDP next week. As one professor of international studies at Seoul's Yonsei University gravely observes, "All that remains is the presidential election that comes in 60 days and the clear, unforgiving judgment of the people."

That judgment will not fall kindly upon Roh Moo-hyun, Kim's chosen candidate for December's elections and heir to the Sunshine Policy. (1) Kim's scandals have crippled Roh's campaign, but Roh himself has contributed in no small part to his failures. A former anti-American activist, Roh only recently ceased advocating the withdrawal of American forces from South Korea. An attempt at deflecting the Hyundai affair's ill effects, for instance, backfired when Hah Hwa-kap, the MDP party chairman, denounced a key Roh aide's call for investigating the scandal as "groundless accusations." Most recently, Roh reportedly accused a faction of long-time Kim Dae-jung loyalists of "masterminding the increasing flow of defectors away from the party and his candidacy."