Partly Sunny on the Korean Peninsula: Rebuilding South’s Perception of the North

The latest developments on the Korean Peninsula with the promises on ending the Korean War that has extended over 60 years have created a new momentum of hope and peace. However, this détente narrative of Kim Jongun and Moon Jaein is not necessarily new in the inter-Korean relations. The plans of operations discussed in the latest inter-Korea summit meeting closely follow the path of previous summits held in 2000 and 2007 under the liberal presidents Kim Daejung and Roh Moohyun (Ramzy, 2018). The previous progress gained in bettering the relationship of the two Korean regimes, often referred to as the Sunshine policy period, halted once the political tide turned and brought conservative presidents back to power (Moon, 2012). Thus, the role of North Korea as an enemy or a partner for South Korea seems to be socially constructed, altering depending on the political temper present in the South.

Changes in societies and their identities are hard to manipulate, especially something as large of a scale as the Sunshine policy was. However, even the starting point of the identities between South and North Korea were very much constructed ones. This can be seen in the construction of identities of enmity perpetrated by the South Korean state as a way of securitization in the defense of the authoritarian regimes of Park Chunghee and Chun Doohwan. During this era of authoritarian leaders, spanning from 1961 to 1988, the threat of North Korea was often presented as an excuse for draconian way of ruling the country and harshly repressing any popular movement for democracy (Chung, 2003).

This identity persisted for a long time. According to Choi Jongkun (2010), in a state that remains in an extended conflict the population tends to hold a certain identity that it believes has protected their values. Thus, “it is difficult to adapt to a different resolution” (p. 122). The idea of North Korea as an enemy became a shared fact in the society, somewhat similar to Emile Durkheim’s (1982) description of social facts. Of course the “compelling and coercive power” (p. 51) that seemed to guide and to force Durkheim in his own experience, was in the case of South Korean authoritarian regimes the coercive power of the state to arrest anyone hoping to picture North Korea in a light of co-operation. This was felt by no other than Kim Daejung, who spent several years in exile in the United States after being convicted of sedition and conspiracy in South Korea (Oxford Council on Good Governance). However, even after the coercive power of state was lifted, the memory of an enemy up North still remained, causing a more conservative inter-Korean stance especially among those who were happy to sacrifice their civil rights in 1960s and 1970s for the authoritarian state led economic growth. This implies that the authoritarian regime left a mark deeper than just their legislative practices.

Eventually, as South Korea became a democracy and Kim Daejung rose to power becoming the eight president of South Korea, the new liberal president started his own mission of reshaping the national identity and knowledge in South Korea in terms of North Korea. Indeed, in forming the foundation for Sunshine Policy, again the national level messages and cues from top to bottom played a major role. Kim Daejung and his policy framed North Korea as a potential partner for cooperation instead of the enemy and existential threat it had been for the last decades. The public in their part took a moment to adjust to the new worldview practiced by their leadership.

Roland Bleiker (2005) notes, especially the change on discussion in media about North Korean leader Kim Jongil becoming “a pragmatic leader with good judgment and knowledge” from the previous “insane, drunk playboy” was a major change in the style of discussion, not instantly welcomed by the general population (p. 4). However, after Kim Daejung took part in the first inter-Korean summit in June 2000, there appeared to be a change in the public opinion. These tangible actions from Kim Daejung seemed to convince the South Korean population. Moon Chungin (2012) observes that soon after the summit the public opinion on North Korea improved sharply: “immediately after the Korean Summit in June 2000, the approval rate [of Sunshine policy] rose to above 90 percent” (p. 35).

Thus the first inter-Korean summit functioned as a catalyst for identity change on a national level. Kim Daejung’s maneuver was perceived largely positively and eventually Sunshine Policy altered the hostile views and identities held in South Korea. As Bleiker (2005) notes, under the regime of Kim Daejung “television stations started (carefully) broadcast selected programs from the North. Some North Korean items … became available for sale in special stores in the South. Art exhibitions could now feature works that represent North Korean themes” (p. 22). This was something unheard of in the previous setting of national enmity.

It could be argued that behind the emergence of Sunshine policy there existed a certain shared generational trauma. Ideas of engagement policy, which was the central theme of Sunshine policy, emerged already at the early stages of South Korea’s democratization movement in the late 1980s. These ideas were supported by a vanguard that was later called the 386-generation. Haesook Chae and Steven Kim (2008) describe the 386-generation as “a term coined in the 1990s to describe those who were in their thirties at the time, attended college in the 1980s, and were born in 1960s” (p. 78-79). This generation had the shared experiences of often violent student demonstrations against the despotic regimes of their era. They were also critical of the connection between the extreme securitization of North Korea, and the tightening grip of the regime on the civil society. In this way, many of the 386-generation saw engagement with North Korea as a way of hedging against possible state imposed martial laws placed in the name of national security. As Chung Chienpeng (2003) notes, engaging with Pyongyang was seen as a way to “reduce the ability of the state to use North Korea as a threat with which to manipulate public fear and perception” (p. 10). This political thinking was then, in a way, culminated in Kim Daejung and his presidency.

Thus, relevant to the discussion is in particular the idea of collective memory and its manipulation. Eventually after gaining their emancipation, the 386-generation effectively rose to the seat of power in South Korean politics. They supported Kim Daejung, but their influence was even greater once Roh Moohyun became the president in 2003. This tide returned as the current president of South Korea, Moon Jaein, was elected in 2017. The way of understanding the world by the 386-generation then became the way of understanding for majority of South Korea. In his work, Barry Schwartz has noted “how, in shaping the present, memories of the past provide ‘a stable image upon which new elements are superimposed'” (Swindler and Arditi, 1994, p. 309). In this way the wrongs experienced by 386-generation became the basis of Sunshine policy and the renewed understanding of North Korea.

However, it is the alteration of the national view and narrative of South Korea on North Korea that makes the phenomenon interesting. Eventually the era of Sunshine Policy came to close as a conservative candidate, Lee Myungbak, succeeded Roh Moohyun as the president. Perhaps the disillusionment with democracy, as Roh Moohyun himself was not free of scandals (Kim and Park, 2009), or the liberal president’s failures in economic policies (Onishi, 2006) created favorable circumstances for the conservatives to rise back to seat of power. This worsened the intra-Korean relations, as Lee Myungbak did not respect the Joint Declarations with North Korea devised by Kim Daejung and Roh Moohyun. As Moon Chungin (2012) notes, “polarization between liberal proponents of engagement and conservative anti-engagement hardliners continued to undermine the prospects for improved inter-Korean relations” (p. 74).

The conservative turn after the heyday of Sunshine Policy did not share as large of a collective memory as the presidency of Kim Daejung and Roh Moohyun did. There was no new generation demanding to get their voices heard. However, the recent change in power in South Korea in 2017 brought the liberals back to power. The current president, Moon Jaein, represents the greying 386-generation but was still able to gain momentum from a new generation of candlelight protestors who rallied in order to oust the previous president Park Geunhye after the large-scale corruption in her government became public (CIVICUS Monitor, 2017). The same movement and ethos in public seems to rally behind Moon Jaein now after the latest inter-Korea summit (Kirk, 2018).

Regardless of the future of the inter-Korean relations, the previous era of Sunshine policy, the current period of détente and the variables that made them possible are intriguing. As Calhoun (1995) notes, “[t]he pursuits labeled ‘identity politics’ are collective … They are struggles, not merely groupings; power partially determines outcomes and power relations are changed by the struggles. They involve seeking recognition, legitimacy (and sometimes power), not only expression or autonomy” (p. 21). This can be seen in the case of Sunshine policy in Korea. The preceding antagonistic identities were replaced after a competing identity of pacifists and 386-generation student demonstrators managed to settle on the throne of political power. This eventually brought nationwide recognition and in turn changes in identities.

In this regard, while dialogue between the two Koreas is heartening, concrete steps towards peace on the peninsula are not as straight forward. While Kim Jongun seems more accommodating than his predecessors, being the first North Korea leader to visit South Korea, both of the Korean leaders are entangled in the webs of their respective societies, making achieving sustainable peace on the Korean peninsula harder than posing for press photos.



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“Anti-government protestors in South Korea running away from gas grenades in June 1987. Source: Itsuo Inouye/AP”

“Kim Daejung and Kim Jongil at the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. Source: Yonhap News

“Anti-North Korea rally in Seoul in August 2015. Source: AP”

“Kim Jongun and Moon Jaein embracing each other at 2018 Inter-Korean Summit”. Source: 남북정상회담 준비위원회