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North Korea will 'collapse' if it pursues nuclear weapons, South Korean president says

Stepping up an already unusually strong push to condemn North Korea, South Korean president Park Geun-hye told parliament Tuesday that Pyongyang’s insistence on developing nuclear weapons will lead to the regime’s demise.

“The North Korean government can no longer survive while pursuing nuclear weapons. Such moves will only lead to their collapse,” Park said in a nationally televised address. Seoul, she said, must "face the painful truth that North Korea will not change on its own" and take unspecified "stronger and more effective" measures against the North.

The sharp remarks are the latest in a string of aggressive moves by Seoul following a nuclear weapons test by North Korea in January and a long-range rocket launch in February.

Already, South Korea has closed an industrial park just over the border that employed North Koreans; parliament has adopted a resolution condemning the recent rocket launch; and Seoul and Washington have started talking about deploying a U.S. ballistic missile interception system known as THAAD on South Korean soil.    

Meanwhile, South Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations called on member states to pass "a robust and comprehensive" sanctions resolution to rebuke North Korea for its nuclear weapons program. The U.S. is also lobbying for new, tough sanctions against Pyongyang, but has faced resistance from China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and the North’s closest ally.

The muscular approach from Park’s administration has won narrow approval from the public. An opinion poll last week by RealMeter after the closure of the industrial park was announced found 47.5% of respondents in support of the move, compared to 44.3% who thought it was a mistake.

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On Tuesday, Park called for the nation to rally around her policies.

"Aiming the point of a sword back to us and splitting us up are things that must not take place," she said, adding that she opposed providing large-scale aid to the impoverished North with few strings attached "like in the past."

Park was referring, obliquely, to the so-called Sunshine Policy, a South Korean rapprochement initiative from about 1998 to 2008 in which Seoul provided unconditional aid to the North, held regular talks between governments and arranged cultural and civilian exchanges in an effort to improve relations and reduce tensions. The Korean Peninsula has been divided for about seven decades.

The policy spurred unprecedented high-level contact between the two antagonistic sides, and the first (and still only) summits between the leaders of North and South Korea, in 2001 and 2007. For his role as face of the Sunshine Policy, then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.

But the Sunshine Policy had plenty of critics who saw it as rewarding the leaders of North Korea, who deny their citizens nearly all civil and political freedoms and confine thousands of political prisoners to prison camps where human rights abuses are common.

Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of North Korean Studies at Korea University, has described the Sunshine Policy as “excessively generous,” arguing that it failed to induce any substantive change in the North Korean government.

North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, followed by others in 2009, 2013 and this year.

Observing the sharp escalation in tensions over the last few weeks, the brains behind the Sunshine Policy, former presidential advisor Moon Chung-in, said he could only shake his head.  

“If they had methodically implemented the Sunshine Policy, this wouldn’t have happened,” said Moon, now a visiting professor at UC San Diego.

Over the last eight years, Moon has watched the gradual dismantlement of the policy he worked on tirelessly, and a steady hardening of public opinion.

The thinking behind the Sunshine Policy was that by increasing contact and narrowing the economic disparity between North and South Korea, the two sides could gradually build trust and work toward peaceful reunification. Moon and his colleagues in government designed projects that were, in theory at least, mutually beneficial. The Kaesong Industrial Complex and a tourist venture at Mt. Kumgang, a scenic area in North Korea, were linchpins.

The Kaesong Complex would marry South Korean capital and industrial know-how with cheap North Korean labor. With the opening of Kumgang to South Korean tourists, they would get to see another part of the peninsula, which would be revitalized by new commercial activity. Both sides would win -- or so Moon and the other officials hoped.

But times have changed. Years of aggressive actions by North Korea, the election of more conservative South Korean governments starting in 2008, and general antagonism between South and North have snuffed out the sunshine.

The tours to Mt. Kumgang, which drew more than one million South Korean visitors, were halted in 2008 after a North Korean soldier shot to death a South Korean tourist who strayed into a restricted area.

The North’s 2009 nuclear test added to animosities. In 2010, Seoul halted nearly all economic exchange (save for the Kaesong) after accusing North Korea of sinking a South Korean warship, causing the deaths of 46 sailors. (The North denied any involvement.)

This month, South Korea closed the Kaesong complex, pulling the plug on the last vestige of the Sunshine Policy. South Korea argued that money from the complex was being used to fund North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs, both of which are banned by United Nations resolutions.  

Public support for the shutdown, Moon says, is indicative of the changing political mood in South Korea. “There has been a 5 or 6% shift in how many South Koreans support engagement [with North Korea],” said Moon. “That shift makes a difference.”

Young people are the least enthusiastic about engaging with North Korea, since unlike their parents or grandparents, they are not old enough to have memories of a unified entity.

"South Koreans in their 20s and younger have scant interest in offering the North aid or assistance thanks to a string of aggressive actions undertaken by Pyongyang," says Christopher Green, a North Korea analyst and editor of SinoNK, an online scholarly journal focused on Northeast Asia.

With the inauguration of two consecutive conservative governments in 2008 and 2013, Moon – who has a master’s degree and PhD from the University of Maryland – has been back in academia, where he had spent his career until entering government in the late 1990s.

He is a professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul, and 2012, he authored a book defending his approach to relations with North Korea, titled “The Sunshine Policy: In Defense of Engagement as a Path to Peace in Korea.”

Even in wake of Pyongyang’s latest provocations, he remains steadfast in his belief that only by engaging with North Korea can the situation improve.

“Everything else has failed -- sanctions, military confrontations, waiting for [North Korea to] collapse,” he said. “There’s no option besides engagement. Unless we want a war.”

Borowiec is a special correspondent.

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