December 11, 2008: Ambassador Jhe Seong-Ho

President Lee Myung-bak's North Korea Policy: The Way Forward


(Washington D.C.) December 11– Though relations between South and North Korea have soured in recent months, new policies being pursued by the new South Korean government of President Lee Myung-bak may build a framework towards a more harmonious Korean Peninsula. In an East-West Center in Washington Democracy & Human Rights Seminar, Ambassador Jhe Seong-Ho, the Republic of Korea’s ambassador at large for human rights, described the shortcomings in South Korea’s past policies towards North Korea and described the measures being taken by South Korea’s new president to attempt to improve relations between the two countries.


South Korea’s policies toward North Korea have evolved over the years. Since bilateral dialogue began in the 1970s, South Korea has supported policies that it hoped would ultimately lead to a peaceful peninsula. Early South Korean administrations focused solely on economic engagement, while subsequent leaders began adding political and security issues to the mix. During the years of the Sunshine Policy, economic and social exchanges between the two countries increased significantly. Underlying all of these policies was the belief that engagement and exchange would eventually bring about changes in the North Korean government leading to better bilateral relations, improvement of the human rights situation in North Korea, and an end to North Korea’s nuclear program.


Ambassador Jhe suggested that these policies were overly-optimistic and that instead of improving relations, the Sunshine Policy buttressed the power of North Korea’s government, allowing it to consolidate power. Exchange, he argued, is a very important facet of any policy to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula, but it is ineffective when utilized in isolation. Many South Koreans argue that these policies allowed North Korea to get what it wanted from South Korea without giving anything in return including human rights improvements, a cessation of brinkmanship tactics, or an end to its nuclear program.


In January 2008, the people of South Korea elected Lee Myung-bak as president. Lee carefully evaluated previous policies toward North Korea and developed a new approach. Ambassador Jhe explained that the new approach stresses that North Korea is an abnormal state isolated from the international community and that South Korea should assist North Korea in becoming a normal state by encouraging economic development and exchange followed by political changes. The Lee government supports the creation of a non-nuclear North Korea, one that is open and engages with the world, and one in which the economic situation of its people is vastly improved. Lee’s policy stresses that this relationship should be mutually beneficial to both countries so that they can grow and prosper together.


Ambassador Jhe explained that the new approach to North Korea will be more pragmatic than previous efforts. It will stress pragmatism through an evaluation of the costs and benefits of various initiatives, continuing only those activities that achieve tangible successes. The new plan will focus on reciprocity, requiring North Korea to make equivalent exchanges for benefits received from the South. Additionally, the policy will attempt to harmonize international cooperation so that bilateral relations with the North will not complicate or undermine the maintenance of important international ties. In this way, Ambassador Jhe noted, South Korea will teach North Korea that it can expect cooperation when it is cooperative and a withdrawal of cooperation when it is confrontational, creating a new set of rules for bilateral engagement.


However, it cannot be ignored that the relationship between South and North Korea has soured since the election of President Lee Myung-bak. Since December 1, all work in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the poster project of inter-Korean engagement, has ceased by North Korean order, and North Korea is beginning to crack down on what little internal capitalist activity it had permitted previously. Ambassador Jhe said that this may be either a reaction to what North Korea perceives as ‘hard-line’ policies supported by President Lee or the result of a power vacuum cause by the presumed illness of Kim Jong-il. However, he pointed out that relations between the two countries have historically fluctuated, with periods of harmony being following by periods of confrontation. He explained that relations are currently in a period of confrontation but expressed his optimism that harmony will return in the future. Ambassador Jhe continues to believe that the interests of both Koreas are fundamentally the same and that someday they will be able to exist together harmoniously.


Dr. Jhe Seong-Ho is the Republic of Korea’s ambassador at large for human rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and a full professor at Chung-Ang University Law School in Seoul. Previously, he was the vice president of the Korean Society of International Law and a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification where he also served as the director of the North Korean Socio-economic Studies Division and the director of the Center for North Korean Human Rights. He is currently an advisory committee member for the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Unification. Ambassador Jhe has written numerous publications on inter-Korean and international legal issues.