`Sunshine policy' at risk in S. Korean shake-up

Analysts say resignations weaken Kim's ability to pursue reconciliation

September 05, 2001|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

TOKYO - A legislative revolt and mass resignations of South Korea's Cabinet, top presidential advisers and leaders of the ruling party yesterday may have dealt a fatal blow to President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of reconciliation with communist North Korea.

The resignations came after the National Assembly voted to oust the key architect of Kim's engagement strategy with Pyongyang, Unification Minister Lim Dong Won.

Lim, the 66-year-old former chief of South Korea's intelligence service, was entrusted with carrying out the secret negotiations that led to a historic North-South summit in Pyongyang in June 2000, a meeting that helped earn Kim a Nobel Peace Prize last fall.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has yet to make a reciprocal trip to Seoul, and opposition lawmakers in South Korea have charged in recent weeks that Kim Dae Jung and his administration offered too much aid and too many concessions to the North without getting much in return.

The criticism broadly echoes the views of the Bush administration, whose initial cool stance on North Korea is widely seen to have embarrassed and undermined South Korea's president.

The 148-119 vote to dismiss Lim also signaled that the conservative United Liberal Democrats party, which has been aligned with Kim Dae Jung's ruling government for four years, would no longer support the president, whose popularity is sinking. The collapse of the political coalition will make it nearly impossible for Kim to get legislation through the Assembly.

"This vote demonstrates that President Kim is facing a major political crisis," Moon Chung-in, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University, said in an interview.

"Kim may now face a very hard time trying to improve ties with the North because his parliamentary position has become so weak."

Kim said the crisis would not force him to shift policy:

"I will continue to press for inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation to prevent relations between the two Koreas from going backward."

Sunday, in a last-minute bid that may have been designed to rescue Lim, the North offered to reopen the talks in a letter addressed to the unification minister.

Analysts said the olive branch was "too little, too late" to save Lim and was perceived by some legislators as an attempt by Pyongyang to meddle in South Korea's domestic politics.

The resignations give Kim Dae Jung a free hand to select a new team, including a new vice president. A spokesman for the president said he might announce a new slate of Cabinet members this week.

Even so, Monday's parliamentary defeat and yesterday's resignations signal that Kim is becoming a lame-duck leader about 18 months before his term ends.

Less than a year ago, hope was growing that the Koreas might negotiate directly, and the Clinton administration seemed close to finalizing a deal by which Pyongyang would agree to stop developing and testing long-range ballistic missiles. Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright visited Pyongyang and President Bill Clinton was considering a summit.

Moves toward peace talks stalled last winter after South Korea's Kim came to Washington and President Bush cast doubts on whether North Korea would live up to its promises. Bush also introduced a new demand, insisting that Pyongyang begin cutting back troops massed on the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South.

Since then, South Korea has reneged on several promises to Pyongyang, including supplying electricity and continuing boat tours to the North by Hyundai, the large South Korean business group. The tours generated hard currency for the impoverished North Korean government, but Hyundai concluded it could not afford to operate them.

The weakening South Korean economy also has hurt Kim's domestic popularity and limited his ability to reach out to the North.

"Unless the North comes through with a really major breakthrough on missiles or weapons of mass destruction, then Kim will have a very tough time" securing a deal with Pyongyang, Moon said.

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