How Could We Light Up the Darkest Region of East Asia?

ImageSunshine policy was the foreign policy of South Korea, which launched from 1998 to 2008 to moderate its relationship with North Korea and cease the North’s provocative acts by economic assistance and peaceful interaction. Many conservative South Koreans worried and criticized the sunshine diplomacy since the nature of North Korea is unpredictable and fickle. However, most citizens of South Korea believed that this cooperation and financial aid could stop the North’s provocative acts and help average North Koreans who suffered from famine which killed between 600,000 and 1 million people in the mid-1990s. Most South Koreans had high expectations on the policy and hoped that it would light up the dismal lives of North Koreans and lead to the unifications of the two Koreas. However, as some critics anticipated, North Korea did not change. The regime of a dictator did not direct the aid for the needy but instead spent it on military and nuclear missile tests.

After the Korean War in 1953, South Korea was one of the poorest countries around the world. In a Korean history class in elementary school in the early 1990s, I learned that South Korea used to be poorer than North Korea. Since then, the two countries have followed different paths and South Korea has so quickly prospered that today the two sides are incomparable. Two-thirds of the North’s 24 million people still suffer from chronic food insecurity, tens of thousands have taken a risk to cross the border into China to escape from starvation and death and cannibalism is known to still exist in this hunger stricken nation. Sadly, the Sunshine Policy was not able to shine through to the poorest of North Korea. It merely helped Dictator Kim’s power strengthen. This $4.5 billion policy of South Korea was an utter failure.

Then, how was South Korea able to grow and escape from being one of the poorest countries? What could be regarded as the critical success factor as it received much international aid? Almost 2000 foreign volunteers arrived in South Korea in 1966, leaving behind their comforts, to devote their time in fighting for individual human rights, democratic views, and transparent governance. The volunteers with the U.S. Peace Corps touched the lives of deprived South Koreans and stirred in them a sense of achievable hope.  As Stephen B. Wickman said, the program “costs almost no money that has huge benefits for us as well as for the countries that are recipients.”  Peace Corp volunteers still continue to touch the lives of many around the world today.

Yes, it is not fair to compare the Sunshine Policy with the U.S Peace Corp and we cannot fully criticize the failure of one while applauding the success of the other.  But to make a point in case, the Sunshine Policy was not based solely on humanitarian intentions as there were strong political innuendos involved. North Korea’s impossible dictatorial restrictions also was a hurdle that could not be overcome. With temperatures dropping fast with the year end, I am concerned how North Koreans will survive through yet another winter. I hope to see “brighter lights” illuminate the darkest regions of East Asia soon.

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