In 1998 South Korean President, Kim Dae-jung, referenced one of Aesop’s fables, ‘The North Wind and the Sun’, in the creation of a new policy to improve relations with North Korea – essentially a shift from a failed coercion approach to one of co-operation. In the fable, the sun and the wind competed to remove a man’s coat. The wind blew strongly, but the man clutched his coat and kept it on. The sun shone warmly, and the man voluntarily took off his coat to enjoy the fine weather.
Kim Dae-jung’s Aesop inspired policy, aimed at softening the North’s attitudes to the South, was built on the traditional Korean way of dealing with enemies – giving them gifts to prevent then causing harm. The policy soon became known as Kim Dae-jung’s ‘Sunshine Policy’.
The excision of the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region from Kwangon County and its conversion into a special administrative zone, open to South Korean visitors, was one of the early tangible outcomes of the Sunshine Policy, as was the redevelopment of our hotel, the Kumgangsan Hotel.
By the late 1990s the North had well and truly lost its early economic advantage over the South. While the South advanced from the 1970s the North went into a severe decline due principally to the collapse of the Soviet Union, its primary trading partner and external funder, severe famines in the 1990s coupled with the failure of the State’s centralised food distribution system and the grossly excessive amount of its budget that was being spent on its military and its growing nuclear programme. This latter expenditure was deemed necessary to counter an increasingly antagonistic and hostile United States, stationed on its southern border since 1953.
Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy had three underlying principles:
- No armed provocation by the North would be tolerated.
- The South would not attempt to absorb the North in any way. Declaring this principle was very significant and represented a shift from the ‘collapse-and-absorption’ scenario under which the South had been actively seeking to undermine the North and cause its collapse, leading to its absorption into the South – wishful thinking on the part of the South!
- The South actively sought co-operation with the North. In perhaps over simplified terms, the South loosened restrictions on its private sector investing in North Korea while keeping government involvement to the provision of humanitarian aid.
With two others objectives:
- Separation of politics and economics – this never really happened on either side.
- Reciprocity from the North. This objective was significantly watered down very early on as, in most cases, the North was not in a position to reciprocate though, for example, it did provide land and labour to South Korean companies that set up in the Kaesong Industrial Region, at a fraction of what they would have paid to set up and operate in the South. Naturally there were still big set-up costs for southern companies, much of which was lost when politics eventually trumped economics. In addition to not being able to reciprocate financially there were certainly cases where the North (to the surprise of the South) played hard ball. Only two months into the Sunshine era the South requested the creation of a reunion centre for family members unable to meet since the end of Korean War in 1953, in exchange for fertiliser assistance. The North denounced the South’s condition as “horse trading” and cut off talks. The South, within a year, announced a revision of this objective and henceforth it became “flexible reciprocity” based on Confucian values.
Fundamentally, under its Sunshine Policy, South Korea moved to a position of respecting the North’s sovereignty and refraining from undermining its government, though reunification remained a long term goal, as it did, and does, for the North. In embarking on this policy the South was also sending, a perhaps overly subtle, message to the United States that it was asserting its own sovereignty. This message was lost on the United States which remains in de facto control of the South’s foreign policy towards North Korea to this day.
While, in theory the North would benefit more economically than the South from the Sunshine Policy it is actually possible that the South were the winners in the sense that improved relations between the North and South warmed the cockles of foreign investors’ hearts and they subsequently regarded the South as a more palatable investment option.
Critics of the policy argued that the South was being played by the North’s carrot-and-stick strategy and pointed out that there were a number of breaches of the first principle, the policy did not stop the North developing nuclear missiles – the north conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, and it was contested that the South’s financial support which mimicked West Germany’s financial support to East Germany was not used for humanitarian purposes, but was being diverted to the development of nuclear weapons and spending on the military.
While implementation of the policy was difficult from the outset, outside humanitarian aid (a topic in itself), there were a number of successes (albeit each of limited duration), the most notable tangible outcomes being:
An historic summit between South Korean President, Kim Dae-jung, and North Korean Leader, Kim Jong-il, in 2000.
I note this as it was the first meeting between a North and South Korean Leader and to date there have only been five, one in 2007 and three in 2018, all held in North Korea/ DMZ. (Kim Dae-Jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 “for his work for democracy and human rights in South Korea and in East Asia in general, and for peace and reconciliation with North Korea in particular.”)
The Kaesong Industrial Region and Park
This joint venture project opened in 2004/5 and resulted in various South Korean manufacturing companies setting up operations and employing North Koreans (and a small number of South Koreans) in a specially developed industrial park to the south of Kaesong and just north of the DMZ (North/South border).
While it never reached its anticipated potential of hundreds of South Korean companies employing over 700,000 North Koreans the park hobbled along until 2016 with numerous ups, downs, temporary closures, sagas and intrigues, including a rather amusing one around Choco Pies which I have written about HERE, along the way. (https://ramblingwombat.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/have-a-coke-and-choco-pie/ )
On 10 February 2016 the South suspended operations within the park following missile tests carried out by the North. The following day the North expelled all South Korean workers and froze all South Korean assets in the park. Despite efforts and agreements by both countries to re-start operations (which had become profitable for both countries – a major revenue source for the North, while the South benefited from cheap North Korean labour) the park remains closed, not least due to United States sanctions against the North which prohibit southern entrepreneurs bringing in the necessary equipment and technologies to operate their businesses.
In 2018 an Inter-Korean Liaison Office was opened in the industrial area with a view to furthering communication and links between the two Koreas. On 16 June 2020 North Korea blew the building up, as it was deemed no longer necessary amidst heightened tensions between the two countries.
North – South Family Reunions
The Sunshine Policy led to the introduction of brief, officially authorised, reunions between Korean family members who had not seen each other since the Korean War (1950-53), immediately after which the border between North and South was firmly closed. During Kim Dae-jung’s administration (to 2002) three reunions were held but a fourth was cancelled at the last minute by North Korea. A small number of reunions (bringing the total number to 20) have been held since these early reunions. One of these reunions, the last that I am aware of, took place in August 2018 and was held at the Kumgangsan Hotel, where I stayed a month later.
In all, one hundred people had been allowed from each side for this reunion with the South Korean participants chosen by lottery. In the end 83 North Koreans met with 89 South Koreans, the remainder of those selected dropping out on the realisation that the relatives they had hoped to see were no longer alive. As it was sixty-five years on from the end of the Korean War only seven of the participants (including the five pictured above) were reuniting with immediate family, i.e. parents/ children or siblings, while the remainder met with close relatives like cousins.
The Mt Kumgang Tourist Region and the Kumgangsan Hotel
The Mt Kumgang Tourist Region and Resort actually had its genesis some years before the implementation of Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy though under that policy it expanded and prospered.
Back in 1989 Chung Ju-yung, founder of the highly successful Hyundai Group (most famous for its cars) and by his death in 2001 the richest man in South Korea, visited North Korea and announced that he would fund a joint North-South Tourism project at Mt Kumgang, near which he was born into a peasant family back in 1915. In addition he floated the idea of a trans-Korea pipeline to bring gas from Siberia to South Korea, through the North. Kim Il-sung was suspicious of Chung’s true intentions so nothing came of his efforts at that point.
Unpurturbed by his earlier failure and with Kim Jong-il now at the helm in North Korea Chung returned in 1998, becoming the first civilian to cross the DMZ without an official escort since 1953. This time he brought with him 50 trucks filled with 500 cattle, as a gift for the people in his home village. Alas, some of the cattle became sick and died resulting in the North accusing the South of deliberately trying to poison North Koreans. Undeterred, Chung returned again later in the same year, this time with 501 cattle. His perseverance paid off and he was given the green light to start up the Mt Kumgang Tourist Project.
Within a couple of months the first ship of South Korean tourists (441 people) docked at a port near Mt Kumgang and served as the hotel for guests on this inaugural visit.
Over the next couple of years Chung’s Hyundai Asan company, which had received a 30 year exclusive deal to develop the region, pumped millions into the development of hotels, hiking routes, golf courses and other tourist facilities. In 1999 and 2000 148,000 and 213,000 South Koreans visited the Mt Kumgang Resort.
While the number of visitors dropped in 2001 (due to land access issues and a ramping up of US pressure on North Korea, directly and through South Korea) numbers picked up again in 2002 when road access across the DMZ opened up as relations improved under the Sunshine Policy. By 2005 over one million visitors had come from the South and the Mount Kumgang Resort had become a rare symbol of inter-Korean cooperation and peace.
Despite ongoing and increasing ‘background noise’ from the US which threatened the resort’s prospects and Inter-Korean relations more generally the resort remained successful and visitor numbers grew until July 2008, by which time over 1.7 million South Koreans had visited. In that month Ms Park Wang-ja, a visitor from Seoul, was fatally shot when she veered into a military zone on an early morning walk. South Korea immediately suspended all tours to the Mt Kumgang Resort which was mothballed with the North expelling all remaining South Korean workers a month later, after denying a South Korean request for a joint inquiry into Park Wang Ja’s death.
Sad and unfortunate as the death was, deliberate ( I can think of no conceivable reason why North Korea would want to shoot a Southern tourist – there could be no advantage in doing so) or accidental (almost certain) the cessation of the joint tourist programme based solely on this would have been a totally disproportionate response. Coming as the shooting did just months after the election of the conservative President Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s ban on visits to the resort was clearly implemented to mark a symbolic end to what Lee saw as the idealistic ‘Sunshine’ policy of the previous ten years.
In March 2010, the Pyongyang government warned that “extraordinary measures” would be taken if the South Korean administration did not lift the ban on tourism. The following month the North seized all South Korean assets (worth hundreds of millions of dollars) in the resort, in compensation for losses suffered from the South’s 2008 suspension of tourism.
The North immediately re-opened a portion of the seized resort to all but South Koreans, except for those partaking in the reunions which I referred to earlier. Despite a number of attempts to entice international tourists (in particular Chinese tourists) to the resort very few international tourists visit the region even today. When I visited our group and a small contingent of Red Cross representatives (which incidentally organised the reunion visits) were the only guests at the 215 room Kumgangsan Hotel, thought to be the only hotel operational today.
Ever confident and optimistic of a re-opening to South Koreans, Hyundai Asan continues to maintain a website for the resort – http://www.mtkumgang.com/eng/preview/intro.jsp
The Kumgangsan Hotel is one of the oldest in North Korea having been built in 1958. In the early 2000s it was taken over and completely refurbished by Hyundai Asan (with South Korean appliances and fittings throughout) and became the flagship hotel of the resort and one of the best hotels in the country.
My standard room had mountain views, as all rooms do, and was very comfortable and well appointed with all the amenities and facilities of a typical high-end international hotel. There were no issues with water or power when I visited though I understand neither can be guaranteed.
And, naturally, many of us could also see this from our rooms…….
The public areas of the hotel were luxurious and again well appointed with a massive chandelier being a standout feature along with multiple wall sized murals of the local Mt Kumgang ranges, including the one depicted in my lead picture in this post.
Though, sadly for security reasons, I cannot share a photograph of it one of the highlights of our total trip was our senior guide entertaining a few of our group with a some Korean classics played on the hotel’s grand piano while we enjoyed some after dinner drinks one evening.
So what is to become of the hotel and the resort?
In 2019 Kim Jong-un visited the resort and severely criticised the facilitates: “They are not only very backward in terms of architecture but look so shabby as they are not properly cared for. The buildings are just a hotchpotch with no national character at all.” He likened the facilities to “makeshift tents in a disaster-stricken area” and ordered that they be removed (after consultation with relevant South Korean parties) and replaced by ‘modern facilities’ in a ‘Socialist Style”.
Uncharacteristically, in commenting on the resort, Kim criticised his father’s wisdom in permitting it to proceed with the high level of foreign investment it had. He felt that it was out of line with his grandfather’s Juche (self reliance) policy. To be fair to Kim none of his many developments since coming to power have relied, to this extent, on foreign investment and/or management. That said, none of his investments, for example the Wonsan Special Tourist Zone, have yielded anywhere near the return that the Mt Kumgang Resort did in its heyday but then again the success or failure of international focused projects in North Korea is largely outside the control of the North Korean government.
While Kim’s ‘redevelopment’ has been put on hold due to Covid considerations, what happens remains to be seen but all parties will be aware of how Kim Jong-un recently dealt with the 2018 built Inter-Korean Liaison Office in the Kaesong when he deemed it excess to requirements (see earlier)!
To finish up an already excessively long post I will briefly comment on some of the difficulties encountered in keeping the ‘Sunshine Policy’ alive, the demise of the policy and its futile resurrection.
Implementation of the policy was difficult from the start due to the obstinacy of the North in negotiations with a schism between hard-liners and reformists in Pyonyang coupled with general corruption and division within many Southern Governments and on-going criticism of the policy within South Korea as being to liberal. Added to Korean difficulties, there was strong resistance and interference from the US government throughout – for example in 2001 the North stopped all negotiations with the South when the US proclaimed North Korea as a third leg in the Axis of Evil, along with Iraq and Iran.
While Kim Dae-jung’s successor, President Roh Moo-hyun, persevered with the Sunshine Policy complications arose around the North’s (then alleged) possession of nuclear weapons. Notwithstanding this, Roh did manage to keep politics separated from economics and in 2005 the Kaesong Industrial Region/Park opened and in the same year the South provided $324million in aid to the North.
Relations soured after the North’s nuclear missile tests in 2006 and little in the way of new initiatives started after this though existing projects continued. From 2008 President Roh Moo-hyun’s successor, Lee Myung-bak, adopted a much harder line with North Korea though his threats to stall growth at the Kaesong Industrial Park, if the North did not work to eliminate its nuclear weapons programme, were met with a series of short-range ship-to-ship missile tests by the North!
In November 2010, the South Korean Unification Ministry officially declared the Sunshine Policy a failure, thus bringing it to an end.
The South’s current president, Moon Jae-in, resurrected the Sunshine Policy in 2017 with, initially, less hinderance from the US than heretofore. Indeed President Trump held three meetings with Kim Jong-un at this time but they resulted in nothing of substance.
President Moon Jae-in’s efforts have been limited to three meetings with Kim Jong-un and other mostly symbolic gestures – such as a joint agreement to open the Mt Kumgang Tourist Resort – due to US lead sanctions against North Korea which have significantly increased since 2010, with major increases under the Trump administration. These increased sanctions have made, for example, the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Park impossible and the reopening of the Mt Kumgang Resort to South Koreans almost impossible. While, in theory, South Koreans could visit as tourists it would be impossible for South Korean companies to invest in or run the resort as they formerly did and there is little doubt that the US would deny tourists land or sea access to the North via the DMZ or coastal waters which are basically controlled by the US.
My next North Korea (2018) – Mt Kumgang review– HERE
Return to the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Mt Kumgang reviews – HERE