After the better part of four decades of inter-Korean relations defined primarily by ongoing hostility and deterrence, the inauguration of the Kim Dae Jung administration in 1998 ushered in a policy of “peaceful coexistence” with North Korea. This was followed by a policy of proactive engagement, which was primarily manifest by the rather one-sided provisions of South Korean investment, fertilizer, and humanitarian aid to North Korea. The primary objective of this approach, particularly during the Roh Mu Hyun administration, was to ensure stability in North Korea, at least in the short run.
President Lee Myung Bak entered office in February 2008 espousing a long-term vision for inter-Korean relations that included significant South Korean investment in North Korea and a stated goal of dramatically increasing North Korean per capita GNP. But this approach was premised on changes on North Korean behavior, particularly on progress toward denuclearizing North Korea.
In practice, President Lee’s policy was a sharp departure from that of his predecessors. The president and his advisors more openly raised issues such as North Korean human rights, participated in international efforts to curb North Korea’s illicit activities, and changed they manner in which they handled development and humanitarian aid -- all changes that were very unwelcome in Pyongyang.
In another respect, President Lee’s approach to North Korea was at least in part a reflection of changing South Korean attitudes toward Pyongyang. Not only was there a growing sense that South Korea’s decade of largess was unappreciated and unreciprocated, but during the first years of the Lee Administration, a series of North Korean actions further influenced underlying South Korean public opinion and as a result Seoul’s policy toward the North.
On July 11, 2008, North Korean soldiers shot a South Korean tourist in the back at the Diamond Mountain resort. North Korea’s subsequent refusal to engage in a joint investigation of the incident led to a shuttering of the Hyundai-Asan operated tourist zone. The fact that this event took place in the context of a North Korean long-range missile test and nuclear test on April 5 and May 25, 2009, respectively, further hardened South Korean public opinion.
The detention of a South Korean employee at the Kaesong Industrial Complex for 137 days during the summer of 2009 further colored South Korean views of the prospects for engagement with North Korea. Tensions again rose in the West Sea with a naval altercation South Korea calls the “Battle of Daecheong” on November 10, 2009. This resulted in severe damage of a North Korean patrol boat and North Korean threats of retaliation.
The sinking of the Cheonan on March 26, 2010 and the tragic loss of forty-six South Korean sailors shocked the South Korean public. But initial uncertainty about the cause of the tragedy, the lengthy investigation, the fact that the incident took place out of sight and at night, and the fact that the initial findings of the investigation were announced shortly before South Korean local elections all served to make this particular incident politically divisive within South Korea.
That was not the case with the November 23, 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. The North Korean artillery barrage took place in broad daylight and was captured on videotape. Real time