North Korea's admission that it has a covert nuclear arms program has placed South Korea at a precarious and unprecedented crossroads: Will President Kim Dae Jung's signature engagement strategy, the "Sunshine Policy," be displaced by a "Nuclear Winter Policy"? The argument for freezing out the Stalinist North?diplomatically and financially, if not militarily?was already gathering momentum. Large segments of the South Korean public have come to doubt that their contributions of cash and other assistance to Pyongyang will buy anything but a few more meaningless media events and additional empty promises. The North's brinkmanship will not help to convince doubters that security on the peninsula can be achieved through friendly dialogue.
Hardest to convince will be the U.S., which has 37,000 troops guarding the Korean border. Washington has been irritated with Seoul for using too much carrot and not enough stick in its dealings with Pyongyang and for turning a blind eye to dictator Kim Jong Il's nuclear ambitions. For hard-liners in the Bush Administration, the nuke confession is vindication of its inclusion of North Korea alongside Iraq and Iran in the rogues gallery, the axis of evil. It also provides an excuse to get tough with the North and strip it of its weapons of mass destruction once and for all. Failing to come down hard on the North will make the U.S. look hypocritical. After all, Bush is pushing for regime change in Iraq because Saddam Hussein is pursuing covertly what Kim Jong Il seeks in broad daylight.
Still, it's not a foregone conclusion that Washington will require Kim's Sunshine Policy to fade to black. Bush can't ignore what his South Korean allies want?and ultimately, the majority of the South's citizens favor inter-Korean reconciliation and eventual reunification. The big question: Is it possible to disarm North Korea and seek reconciliation at the same time? Probably not. If the North has the bomb, Seoul has no choice but to move in lockstep with the U.S. This will probably spell an end to "inter-Korean collaboration," a favorite slogan of North Korean officials and some liberal civic organizations in the South.
Seoul?either the current administration or the next?will have to overhaul its North Korean policies. South Korea must accept the painful truth that its dealings with Pyongyang will be more limited; that the outcome of this crisis will largely depend on what North Korea does next and how the U.S. counters the move. Nevertheless, the nuclear issue need not necessarily sound the death knell of the Sunshine Policy. If the North sincerely wants frank discussion?not as crazy as it sounds, because Kim Jong Il's regime is interested mainly in self-preservation?this could be the start of a glasnost-like era for Washington-Pyongyang relations, not to mention inter-Korean ties. This would give the Sunshine Policy tremendous momentum, while smoothing over the philosophical rough spots between Seoul and Washington.
But if Kim Jong Il, by proclaiming his nuclear ambitions, is merely being reckless in his search for new ways to frighten his neighbors into providing financial assistance, the game can only become more dangerous?possibly even violent. North Korea has stepped past the point of no return. Let's hope the Dear Leader is walking toward the sunshine and not into the dark.