Kim showed how to deal with North Korea

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2009, 12:00am

South Korea is mourning the passing of another former president. Kim Dae-jung, whose 'sunshine policy' helped thaw relations with wartime rival North Korea, died yesterday aged 85. His successor Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide in May after being named a suspect in a multimillion-dollar graft probe in which he had denied his guilt.

More than anyone, the two presidents helped ease tensions with Pyongyang and cemented democracy at home. For many Koreans, Mr Kim's career - from dissident to president - exemplified their nation's transition from authoritarian dictatorship to democracy. Still, he lived long enough to see his sunshine policy unravel. Right to the end, he lobbied for a way to re-engage with the North.

Mr Kim won a Nobel Peace Prize for having engineered the historic inter-Korean summit in 2000 with his communist counterpart Kim Jong-il. The revelation that more than US$1 billion was transferred to the North ahead of the summit tainted his achievement. However, given the harsh political realities, it seems less important whether Pyongyang agreed to the summit for money or through moral suasion. Kim Jong-il, whose brutal dictatorship has maintained one of the world's last communist outposts, has proved resistant to normal diplomatic methods. What counts was that he showed up at the summit and, for a time, refrained from making provocative moves of the kind that now threaten peace on the Korean Peninsula, such as the repeat testing of missiles and the development of nuclear weapons.

The belligerent stance the North has taken is a reflection of the insecurities the ailing communist leader feels about his hold on power. It felt especially threatened when the first administration of US president George W. Bush included it in 'the axis of evil' and declared it a terrorist state. The current South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, has made aid to the North conditional on nuclear disarmament. But any approach that uses the stick is likely to push Pyongyang into a corner, and the world has seen how dangerous that can be. The legacy of Kim Dae-jung is to have shown that the carrot is also needed in dealing with the North.