The Sunshine Policy of South Korea

Jesse Min
March 13, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: The 15th President of South Korea, Kim, Dae-jung. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Sunshine Policy is the policy of South Korea towards North Korea during Kim Dae-jung (See Fig. 1) and Rho Moo-hyun presidency. The formal name of the policy was the "Comprehensive Engagement Policy towards North Korea" and first announced by the 15th South Korean President, Kim Dae-jung, in 1998. The term "Sunshine Policy" was originated from one of Aesop's fables, "The North Wind and the Sun," as the policy aimed for loosening containment on North Korea, embracing North Korea, and eventually making the North Korean government to denuclearize by itself. [1] This policy was striking at the time, because many citizens and scholars had been urging for tougher and more conservative measures against the North. There was widespread antagonism against the North due to its ruthless military provocations against the South and its brutality on its own citizens.

The gist of the Sunshine Policy was derived from Ostpolitik, a famous normalization effort of West Germany towards East Germany, in which the West German government acknowledged East Germany not only as a normal and independent, but also as a very close nation. West Germany supported 57.6 billion dollar to East Germany as well. [2] Based on the successful policy of West Germany that eventually led to the successful unification with the East, President Kim introduced three major principles for the Sunshine Policy considering the uniqueness of the Korean peninsula. He also claimed for the separation of politics and economics. This policy lasted until 2008, until the end of Rho Moo-hyun administration (President Rho is the 16th president of South Korea). President Kim was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for implementing the policy in 2000.

Principles of the Policy

The Sunshine policy was based on three following principles: [1]

While the first principle that the South will not forgive any military provocation of North Korea, the more important parts of the policy come next. There had been wide consensus among South Korean citizens and scholars that the "collapse-and-absorption scenario," most likely to be South Korea's absorption of North Korea, "appears to be the most likely means through which full unification could be undertaken." [3] This consensus based on "right-leaning bias and inattention to many obstacles to peaceful resolution" was attempted to be fixed in the second principle. [4] By addressing the second principle, the South Korea halted forming tension with North Korea and appeased North Korea to reduce its spending in defense.

The third bullet point explicitly implied that the South would put unprecedented amount of effort and investment into the North if North Korea becomes cooperative. As a result, Kaesong Industrial Region (or KIR), a special administrative industrial region of North Korea, where 53,000 North Koreans and 800 South Koreans are employed and work together, was constructed. There was also an evident increase in the number of North Korean refugees during the period, with the highest peak at 2008, and most importantly, tour program for South Koreans to North Korea was first initiated in the history.

Positive Outcomes

Apparently, the Sunshine Policy elicited active economic and cultural interactions between the two and improved inter-Korean relations in multifaceted aspects. The objectives of the Sunshine Policy were more specific and substantial than any of the previous policies towards North Korea. Besides its direct influence on inter-Korean relations, the Sunshine Policy tremendously helped South Korean economy. It had been historically shown that more than billions of dollar evaporate in just one day whenever North Korea announced some antagonistic policy toward the South or caused military provocation on the South, because foreign investors then regarded the South Korean market as unstable. [5]

There was a substantial economic benefit to South Korea too. At the beginning of Kim Dea-jung's administration, South Korea was just bailed out from the IMF, so the South had to avoid confrontationist policy toward the North. In this sense, this coexistence, reconciliation policy helped South Korea from recovering its economic from the nadir.

Negative Aspects

Many people criticized the policy saying that the South was being played by the North's stick-and-carrot strategy. There were more than 10 major armed provocations of North Korea including the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong in 2002, in which 1 South boat was sunk, 6 men were killed, and 19 were wounded. [6] North Korea executed its first nuclear experiment in 2006 as well. There was a severe criticism on these incidents that South Korea's financial support that mimicked the West Germany's financial support to East Germany was not used for humanitarian purpose for North Korean citizens, but for developing nuclear weapons and military forces.

Some conservative-leaning people criticize that a decade of the Sunshine Policy weakened the US-South Korea alliance. After September 11, 2001, President Bush proclaimed that he would punish any kind of terrorist group and clarified his "deep-rooted distrust of Kim Jong II and the North Korean regime." However, by being friendly with North Korea and helping the North with massive amount of financial support, the ROK-U.S. relations were aggravated or at least, did not advance further, which blocked potentials of South Korean economy during early 2000's.

Last but not least, some critics believe that the Democrats used the Sunshine Policy as a political gain in domestic politics in the South, but it is controversial.


There has not been any official announcement from the South Korean government that it abolished the Sunshine Policy completely. The South Korean government is choosing to take more conservative stance against North Korea these days. It is true that the Sunshine Policy widened a new horizon of inter-Korean relations, explored potentials of inter-Korean relations, and stabilized the East-Asian security. However, it is also an undeniable fact that the landscape of North Korea has been changed a lot, and taking one of the extremes between the two, confrontationist or embracer, is myopic. The South and the world should cooperate together to come up with the most effective measure not only for South Korea or East Asia, but also for the world peace.

© Jesse Min. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] K.-Y. Son, South Korean Engagement Policies and North Korea (Routledge, 2006).

[2] C. Fink and B. Schaefer, Eds., Ostpolitik, 1969-1974: The European and Global Response (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[3] J. Fuqua, Korean Unification: Inevitable Challenges (Potomac Books, 2011), pp. 13-35.

[4] S. S. Kim, Inter-Korean Relations: Problems and Prospects (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

[5] H. Paik, "Assessment of the Sunshine Policy: A Korean Perspective," Asian Perspect. 26, No. 3, 72 (2002).

[6] S. Snyder and S.-W. Byun, "Cheonan and Yeonpyeong: The Northeast Asian Response to North Korea's Provocations," RUSI J. 156, No. 2, 74 (2002).