In 2015 North Korea: State of Paranoia was published. Since then we’ve seen Kim Jong-un instigate a renewed nuclear crisis, the collapse of the Six Party Talks (between China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States) and a hardline stand-off between an ever belligerent North and a (for the last decade anyway) conservative South Korea.
At the same time the USA has gone through three presidents (Bush 2, Obama & Trump), Japan has had eight Prime Ministers (Koizumi, Abe, Fukuda, Aso, Hatayame, Kan, Noda, and Abe again), Russia three presidents (Putin, Medvedev, Putin once more) and South Korea five presidents (Kim, Roh, Lee, Park and now Moon).
Incredible changes – a year ago I wasn’t thinking seriously of a Trump presidency; or that Park Gyun-hae in Seoul would be led away in handcuffs on corruption charges and a pro-engagement President elected. But, in August 2017 that’s where we are – Kim Dae-jung famously championed the “Sunshine Policy” of rapprochement with the DPRK (and we got emotional family reunions, the Kaesong Industrial Park, some talks) and now President Moon Jae-in has extended a new olive branch to Pyongyang calling for talks to dial down tensions on the peninsula.
Of course all this comes at a time when we have a United States administration effectively without a coherent Korea policy – any Korea policy seemingly. It wasn’t that America always had a terrific Korea policy – nobody really cheered for Obama’s “Strategic Patience”, which was a policy fail and showed (not for the first time) that the US could not always force a rogue nation to its will. Nuclear testing continued, the acquisition of missile technology continued and, as of July 4th, we now have a North Korea with ICBMs. Realistically DPRK strategy is now no longer about the three old positions – containment, bartering or prevention (i.e war). As an American General pointed out when US politicians talked about “preventing” the North from going nuclear – forget it, ‘that ship has already sailed.’
It has consistently retreated from doing anything about North Korea. I don’t mean this in a Trumpish way – get them to de-arm or else – but rather that Beijing, of course now an economic superpower, has missed its opportunity to step up and be a diplomatic superpower and restart the stalled Six Party Talks with both Koreas, Tokyo, Washington and Moscow. That has been a major missed opportunity for Beijing to look effective, committed and a good global citizen.
President Moon in Seoul, with a slight mandate for engagement, is trying to initiate cross-border talks. These may ultimately come to nothing but, at least, if they start, should allow for a resumption of family reunions, perhaps some vital aid flows northwards to fill dangerously empty grain silos, power intermittently-operating electricity stations and stock the bare shelves of pharmacies. At best the talks may act as a pressure release for peninsula tension. However, even if they do they can be no more than the two Koreas talking to each other. Good, but the nuclear-enabled DPRK is a regional problem and so China deciding to be pro-active in its diplomacy again and restart the much wider Six Party Talks would be a big boon.
Right now there’s two things to remember and watch for. Firstly, Kim Jong-un remains unpredictable, erratic and decidedly rogue.
That bizarre act reveals the paranoid nature of the North Korea leader. Kim Jong-nam was no threat – a troubled man who had forfeited his chance at the leadership as far back as 2001 with his embarrassing secret trip to Tokyo Disneyland. Since then he had been living largely in Macao and was not a centre of opposition. Only a very foolish foreign intelligence agency would have built a coup attempt around Kim Jong-nam.
And, lastly, remember Kim Jong-un’s own policy theory – the ‘Byungjin’ line. The thrust of the policy is that you become a nuclear power to secure your self-preservation and survival against attack. OK – job done. The second element is that you have to improve the material economic conditions of the people – food, health, energy, standard of living. Making good on that half of the pledge is what we are waiting for now.
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Image: A celebration of the relationship between the DPRK and China, 2010.
Photographer: Roman Harak