The old saying you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar may still hold true in most situations, but not necessarily when the fly in question is a paranoid egomaniac with an arsenal of nuclear weapons at his disposal.
South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, took office on Wednesday, May 10, after a landslide election victory, with promises to visit Pyongyang and to establish dialogue with North Korea’s errant and mercurial dictator Kim Jong-un.
Moon is not the first South Korean leader who has opted to extend an olive branch rather than antagonize his northern foe.
The country’s eighth president, Kim Dae-jung, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 and who was sometimes referred to as the Nelson Mandela of Asia, was an avid advocate of dialogue over aggression, when it came to Pyongyang.
Kim’s famous Sunshine Policy — which was based on the traditional Korean practice of dealing with enemies by giving them gifts to prevent them from causing harm and which led to the opening of initial political contacts between the two countries, as well as two groundbreaking Korean summit meetings in Pyongyang, several high-profile joint-venture business deals and a series of brief meetings of family members separated by the Korean War — was continued by his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, who took office in 2003.
And while the Sunshine Policy of strategic patience and tolerance had its detractors — mainly based on the fact that it blatantly ignored human rights abuses in North Korea in order to keep Pyongyang appeased and its then-President Kim Jong-il’s fingers away from the nuclear button, and because it tended to distant Seoul from its longtime political ally Washington — it did manage to lay the groundwork for the potential establishment of real diplomatic contacts between the two countries.
But in 2001, the Sunshine Policy was overshadowed by a stormy glitch in two-way relations when a Pyongyang abruptly refused to participate in further bilateral ministerial meetings and North Korea reneged on a promise to rebuild a North-South railway.
The following year, North Korea officially launched its nuclear arms program, and instead of the rays of sunny hope, the binational relationship was consistently tarnished by the dark shadows of a possible atomic weapons attack.
South Korea’s 10th president, Lee Myung-bak, took office in 2008 with a get-tough-on-Pyongyang platform that essentially sent the Sunshine Policy out the window and any hopes of bilateral reconciliation into a fading sunset marred by a gloomy dusk of mounting hostiles.
The new South Korean president seems determined to revive Kim’s Sunshine Policy — albeit under a new moniker — and once again mollify the north with outreached hands of aid and offers of economic and political cooperation.
But while Kim Dae-jung was dealing with an erratic and authoritarian Kim Jong-il, Moon will have to confront his even more unpredictable and short-fused son, Kim Jong-un, a 32-year-old despot megalomaniac who sees his arsenal of nuclear weapons as a play toy and who has a strong propensity for offing his relatives.
Granted, in a rational world, diplomatic and peaceful negotiations of conflicts are always a better option than military aggression.
But Kim Jong-un is not a rational human being.
He is a tyrannical and increasingly bellicose self-aggrandizer who cares more about maintaining his autocratic grip on his blood-spattered regime than the welfare of his own citizens.
More importantly, he is a man whose word cannot be trusted and who in on a relentless brinkmanship of nuclear war.
He has a long and tattered history of breaking his promises, and North Korean has a consistent track record of violating its agreements regarding its nuclear program in 1994, 2005, 2007 and 2012.
No matter how hard Seoul may try to placate the North Korean leader, he is not going to relinquish his nuclear weapons or stop playing chicken with the south along the Demilitarized Zone.
Whether he dares to use them against his perceived enemies or not, Kim Jong-un sees his nuclear weapons as his ultimate trump card, a tangible and terrifying assurance that his regime will survive.
And given a scenario of armed confrontation, North Korea could easily level Seoul with heavy artillery in a matter hours.
President Moon is abundantly aware of that fact, which is why he has chosen to reactivate the Sunshine Policy and try to seduce Pyongyang into a pseudo-friendship relationship.
But in the end, Moon has to remember who he is dealing with, and how far he can trust him.
Sunshine and lollipops may distract Kim Jong-un from his nuclear playthings for a while, but they aren’t going to get him to disarm them nor will they transform a rogue North Korea into an upstanding member of the international community.
Only a regime change can do that.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.