South Korea's President Lee Needs a Nordpolitik

By all appearances, South Korea is riding high. While other wealthy nations are mired in debt and depression, Seoul expects 5 percent GDP growth this year. Last year it became the world's ninth-largest exporter, surpassing the United Kingdom. And in November, Seoul will host the G20 summit, confirming South Korea's status as a global player. Yet even as President Lee Myung-bak struts the world stage, his own backyard is festering. Last year North Korea tested a long-range missile and nuclear device. Now the mysterious March sinking of a South Korean Navy ship, which killed 46, looks like Pyongyang's handiwork. Lee's defense minister has said a torpedo is the likeliest cause—and who else but the North would do that?

What Seoul urgently needs is a new Nordpolitik. Ten years ago, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung met the North's Dear Leader,Kim Jong-il, and established the "sunshine" policy of rapprochement that earned Kim the Nobel Peace Prize. That policy had limited results. For a decade thereafter, the Dear Leader took Seoul's cash and did as he pleased. Far from disarming, North Korea went nuclear. Minor market reforms proved short-lived. In 2007 the South struck a far better deal, in which the North agreed to joint projects in mining (the North is richly endowed), shipbuilding, and much more. But when President Lee took office a few weeks later, he ditched all that and fell in step with Washington's hard line on Pyongyang. The new message from Seoul: expect nothing from us, unless you get serious about giving up nukes.

By echoing the U.S. line, Lee has dealt Seoul out of the game. He has thrown away the diplomatic channels, contacts, and political clout that his predecessors had painstakingly built up over the previous decade. His promise of a "grand bargain" continues to patronize a wary North, which has no reason to trust him. By ending cooperation with the North, Seoul is giving up influence in the northern half of what it still claims as its own territory, yielding the field to a Beijing that can't believe its luck.

Chinese companies are investing in North Korean infrastructure and mines, with zero competition from Seoul. That has South Korean rightists rattled. They mutter that North Korea is becoming a fourth province of Manchuria—but they have only themselves to blame. South Korea is a $1 trillion economy. Yet Seoul's myopic conservatives complain about the tiny sums required to send rice to their hungry Northern brethren. Sunshine was cheap—and a bargain if it can foster gradual reintegration rather than costly German-style collapse.

The idea of a Nordpolitik was first broached 20 years ago by Roh Tae-woo, South Korea's Gorbachev, a conservative ex-general who boldly forged links with communist foes. Lee should learn from that, and from Germany's Ostpolitik, which Roh adapted. One lesson is that nations and their leaders must avoid short-termism. Sunshine could not work overnight. Ostpolitik took almost two decades to soften up East Germany to the point of collapse. Aid to a repugnant regime stuck in many craws, but it created dependency and eroded the German Democratic Republic. That leads to a second lesson: ideology and being in the right are not all that matters. The Republican Richard Nixon famously recognized this when he embraced the mass murderer Mao Zedong—and in time, China changed.

It is unlikely that Barack Obama will similarly hug Kim Jong-il. North Korea's nuclear and missile tests last year were a rude raspberry to what could have proved a friendlier face in Washington. Obama's recent nuclear summit isolates Pyongyang as a pariah more than ever. Yet continuing the hard line risks provoking more violent outbursts from a vulnerable, dangerous regime that faces a delicate succession—Kim is 69, and his health is shaky—and an economy in decline, accelerated most recently by a botched currency reform. So if Seoul is to have any say in the future of the North, Lee will need to hold his nose and start talking to Pyongyang again. In January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Lee told the BBC that he is willing to meet Kim Jong-il at any time without preconditions. That's exactly what he should do, despite the obstacles. Otherwise history may remember him not as G20 chair, but for losing North Korea.