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Tuesday, September 8, 1998 Published at 14:50 GMT 15:50 UK

South Korea's DJ brings sunshine to the North

By Joe Havely

The tense border between North and South Korea is one of last remnants of the Cold War.

[ image: The border is one of the most heavily fortified in the world]
The border is one of the most heavily fortified in the world
The truce agreed in 1953 at the end of the Korean War, dividing the peninsular at the 38th parallel, failed to produce a comprehensive peace agreement.

Today the two countries are still officially at war.

But since coming to power earlier this year South Korea's President, Kim Dae Jung - known to his supporters as 'DJ' - has argued for a more open policy towards the North.

He says it is time to remove the "wall of distrust" between them.

Traditional hostility

Campaigning for election in 1997 he called for South Korea to abandon its traditional hostility in favour of coexistence, constructive engagement and what he calls his "sunshine policy".

"Our people are quite homogeneous," Mr Kim told the BBC shortly before his inauguration. "Our unification lasted for 1300 years so there is no reason for us not to work towards unification again."

The principles underlying President Kim's policy are:

  • No tolerance for armed provocation of any kind.
  • An assertion that the South has no intention to undermine or absorb the North.
  • And to actively pursue dialogue, co-operation and reconciliation with the North

Game of brinkmanship

[ image: Kim Dae Jung's
Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" has many opponents
But although Kim Dae Jung has not yet been in office for a full year, the North has already tested his tolerance on a number of occasions.

Territorial incursions by North Korean submarines and the recent testing of a new ballistic missile have raised the stakes in a dangerous game of brinkmanship.

President Kim now faces pressure from his right wing opponents to stop all food aid and contacts with Pyongyang until it promises to stop acting aggressively.

Since the death of the North's founder and leader, Kim Il Sung, in 1994, the secretive communist state has teetered on the brink of social and economic collapse.

Opportunities and dangers

Aware of the opportunities presented by the North's worsening economic situation and lack of food, President Kim has supported the donation of food and other aid as a way of building relations with the North.

[ image: One of 500 cattle donated to the North]
One of 500 cattle donated to the North
The procession of 500 head of cattle across the border in June was seen by many Koreans as symbolic of moves towards closer ties.

The cattle were a gift to the North from Chung Ju-yung, the ageing founder of the Hyundai group, who said he hoped his gift would be "a big stepping stone towards peace and reconciliation."

But the North's problems also present dangers.

The government in Pyongyang has a reputation as being highly unpredictable. Equipped with a large and possibly nuclear-armed military, there are fears that economic and social collapse could lead to it lashing out at its southern neighbour.

Economic problems

[ image: South Koreans from divided families support efforts at reconciliation]
South Koreans from divided families support efforts at reconciliation
But in spite of the South's own economic problems, President Kim has consistently said that the issue of dialogue with the North remains a priority of his administration.

On his first state visit to Washington in June, he urged President Clinton to ease sanctions against North Korea. The US retains a force of over 30,000 troops in South Korea - a legacy of both the Korean and Cold Wars.

At home, his government has lifted restrictions on the flow of gifts, goods, aid and investment at a non-governmental level from South to North. In particular the heads of South Korea's massive chaebol industrial conglomerates were encouraged to consider investing in the North as a source of cheap labour.

Seoul has also begun to ease travel restrictions in the hope of reuniting Korea's millions of divided families.

Demonic image

[ image: Infiltration by North Korean submarines has kept tensions high]
Infiltration by North Korean submarines has kept tensions high
Even seemingly minor concessions such as allowing southern advertising agencies to film commercials in the North is seen as a way of easing the negative image many South Koreans have of the North.

In April, President Kim's optimism appeared to have been rewarded when the North offered to restart official talks for the first time in four years.

But after little more than a week the talks broke down. The North said it objected to the "political conditions" that the South was trying to attach to its offers of agricultural aid.

Reunification prospects

Furthermore the South's economic downturn has underscored its inability to reunify the peninsula by simply absorbing the North.

[ image: Face to face: delegations from the two Koreas meet at Panmunjom border village]
Face to face: delegations from the two Koreas meet at Panmunjom border village
Re-unification, in any case, would be a huge project.

The only comparable experience has been the re-unification of East and West Germany.

But North Korea is more populous and far poorer than East Germany. 22 million impoverished northerners would place a huge strain on the South - one that it could ill afford even in brighter economic times.

Likewise an uncontrolled collapse of North Korea would send thousands of refugees fleeing South.

Kim Dae Jung's sunshine policy is designed to avoid this nightmare scenario by preserving the stability of the North Korean state, as much as it is designed to bring the two sides closer together.

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In this section

Inside the Secret State

Land of illusions

Profile: Kim Jong-il

North Korea: a political history

Analysis: Korean missiles threaten region

Setting store by military might

Where famine stalks the land

South Korea's DJ brings sunshine to the North