Pyongyangs dependency on Beijing
In the wake of the completion of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s latest visit to China, the punditocracy is still struggling to determine what to make of it. Whether Kim will be more inclined to or be able to undertake economic reforms as pushed by China is a secondary issue to the definitive development of Pyongyang’s deepening dependency on Beijing, an unfortunate outcome of failed U.S. and South Korean policy.
In his summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Chairman Kim made three points. First the North is ``focusing its efforts on economic construction, for which a very stable surrounding environment is required.” Second it is “still upholding the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula” and calling for an early resumption of the six-party talks and third, the North ``has made sincere efforts to improve relations with the South.” However, the ``sincerity” of his statements is still questioned by Seoul and Washington, which heard similar statements before.
From Kim’s seventh China visit, it is possible to draw a set of plausible assumptions. First the North has given up hope for improved relations with the South or economic aid from the South to receive in time to celebrate the 100th birthday of its founder Kim Il-sung next year with an announcement of a ``strong and prosperous country.” The North also keeps a basic position to resolve the nuclear issue through negotiation, and it respects, but does not necessarily follow China’s initiatives. North Korea is confident of China’s commitment to its survival, politically and economically, as it understands China’s own strategic interest plus North Koreans knows how to adapt to the changing international development and make the best of it, taking advantage of the traditional ingenuity and resiliency of the Korean people.
Kim, 69, appeared much healthier on TV this time, perhaps the healthiest since he suffered a stroke in the summer of 2009. Only a year ago, some officials in Washington and Seoul predicted that he would live only three more years. It is hard to confirm reports and speculation of what’s happening inside the North Korean leadership. Before Beijing informed Seoul of Kim’s trip, the South Korean government said that Kim Jong-un, not his father Kim Jong-il, was travelling to China.
It turned out that the junior Kim did not go to China. Whether the senior Kim had wanted during his visit to seal the Chinese endorsement for his succession plan was not clear. The absence of a direct Chinese response to Kim’s reference to ``a continued flow of friendship from generation to generation,” which implied the ongoing leadership succession, did not mean a withdrawal of the earlier blessings of the Chinese leaders on Kim Jong-un. It was a done deal.
With Kim Jong-il’s recovery of health and Pyongyang’s survival from tough sanctions by the South and the international community, the talk of a succession crisis or an imminent collapse has subsided. There is no doubt that the impoverished North would face a more severe food crisis without humanitarian aid from outside. No food aid would bring more suffering to the hungry people in the North, but not a regime change or a collapse. The North Korean leaders understand that one way to develop their economy is to give up its nuclear weapons and transform its policy. They also fear that unilateral denuclearization and opening, without security guarantees, would imperil the survivability of their regime.
The North Koreans have demonstrated an ability to determine which country to turn to for assistance to get out of their economic and political difficulties. They learned how to adapt to changing international situations. In the 1989–1992 period, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union ending the Cold War, the North proactively engaged the South and produced the Basic North-South Agreement and the Joint Declaration of Denuclearization. The North and South sides held eight rounds of prime ministerial talks between Seoul and Pyongyang. Of course, Pyongyang’s prime motive was to seek South Korean economic assistance. It also calculated that improved relations with the South would help open direct talks with Washington, with which it had hoped to negotiate its nuclear issue.
Perhaps the 1994-2000 period was a second positive wave of negotiations that produced the Agreed Framework, the U.S.-DPRK joint communique, the June 15 declaration of the first inter-Korean summit and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s meeting with Chairman Kim. In 2000, it seemed that we were so close to resolving the Korean question. During this period, North Korea was in its worst food crisis with a broken economic system, during which hundreds of thousands of people were estimated to have died of starvation. The North turned to South Korea, the United States and Japan for rescue.
Through firsthand experience, the North Korean leadership learned that policy changes and agreements are abandoned on democratic transitions of power. The Basic North South Agreement was thrown away by the presidential electoral politics in South Korea and the resumption of the Team Spirit Exercise. The Agreed Framework was nullified by the George W. Bush administration. The joint declarations of the two inter-Korean summits and the efforts for exchanges and cooperation were discarded by the Lee Myung-bak government.
Faced with the political impossibility for the North to apologize for the sinking of the frigate Cheonan, and convinced of the improbability of change in the joint position of the South and the United States, it is no wonder that Pyongyang turned to Beijing for help for survival. The minimum goal of the North Korean regime still is to somehow resolve the issue of feeding people. Kim’s statement in Beijing, saying that he needs ``a very stable surrounding environment” is encouraging: he does not want more trouble from North Korean provocation.
Since the Yeonpyeong incident, the North has restrained itself from launching further provocations, a point the Chinese leadership spoke highly of during Kim’s visit. As long as military deterrence alone, without diplomatic efforts, would not succeed to prevent provocations, China’s role ― pressure, persuasion and incentives ― appears to be more desirable than ever. I share the view that North Korea would not risk a major war, unless its survivability is directly challenged.
In a broader sense, it was a strategic mistake to have pushed Pyongyang to Beijing. It is too bad for Seoul and Washington to have lost or have given up control over the North Korean issue. What more is there to wait for? What’s your take?
Tong Kim is a research professor with the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He can be reached at email@example.com.