Last month, the leaders of North and South Korea stunned the world with an announcement of plans to meet in Pyongyang in June at the first ever summit between the two nations. It is an event fraught with both danger and opportunity.
It is easy to dismiss the meeting as a cynical ploy by the North Koreans, timed to extract maximum concessions from the electorally weak South Korean president, Kim Dae Jung. The North has a history of demanding tribute as the quid pro quo for participation in various diplomatic forums, so much so that it is now is now the largest U.S. aid recipient in Asia. Last year, a visit to Beijing by Supreme People’s Assembly Chairman Kim Yong Nam netted 150,000 tons of grain and 40,000 tons of coal, and the North Koreans were reputedly demanding from the Chinese a package worth $800 million for a visit by Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.
The South has a history of “checkbook diplomacy” as well, for example in its provision of $3 billion in loans to the Soviet Union when diplomatic relations were normalized between Moscow and Seoul. Given these proclivities, the mind reels at the thought of how much it took to clear this diplomatic market three days before the South Korean elections in which the party of incumbent President Kim trailed at the polls.
Yet resource extraction may not be Pyongyang’s only motive. Extortion has its limits as an economic development model. It may well be that Kim Jong Il, having consolidated power, feels sufficiently confident to break out of North Korea’s strategic straitjacket and knows that he is unlikely ever again to have a counterpart as amenable to engagement as Kim Dae Jung. Importantly, the meeting with the South Korean leader can be justified internally as the fulfillment of Great Leader Kim Il Sung’s plan. After all, at the time of his death in 1994, plans were under way for a summit between him and his counterpart, then South Korean President Kim Young Sam.
Ultimately, the intentions of Kim Jong Il’s regime are central, and one can only speculate on what they might be. It may well be that the summit represents an important step in the strategic reorientation of North Korea. South Korea is not the only country with whom the North Koreans have begun talking. In recent months, they have engaged the Philippines, Italy, Australia and, most importantly, Japan, in discussions aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations. They have expressed interest in joining the ASEAN Regional Forum, the only multilateral security organization in the region, and once again have begun showing interest in the international economic institutions. Rapprochement with Seoul would be central to any such strategy of opening.
At the same time, engagement with the North presents some risks for the South — and for its allies. In his March “Berlin Declaration,” Kim Dae Jung indicated the willingness of the South Korean government to directly underwrite the economic rehabilitation of the North. Although Seoul has gone to great lengths to try and distinguish unconditional “humanitarian aid” from other sorts of economic engagement, which would be undertaken on the basis of reciprocity, this distinction (maintained by other governments as well) is fictional. Indeed, the use of private South Korean firms like Hyundai as tools of South Korean foreign policy simply complicates business-government relations in South Korea and makes the creation of a more liberal and transparent economic system in the South all the more difficult. Some observers in the United States fear that Kim Dae Jung will “sell out” the U.S. on issues such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their missile delivery systems.
So what can we expect? Before the summit, the South Korean government will make a “humanitarian” donation of 200,000 tons of fertilizer to the North, which the North will portray internally as a kind of tribute. At the summit, the best that can reasonably be hoped for is three things: First, a pleasant photo of the two leaders together; second, that in their personal discussions that they might each find something in the other that could serve as the basis of a continuing and constructive relationship; and third, that Kim Dae Jung gets something tangible out of the meeting, most likely in the area of reuniting families divided by the Korean War. It is far less likely that the two sides will make progress on security issues. Economic-engagement issues would fall into a middle ground between the politically easy (divided families) and the politically difficult (military security).
These three modest accomplishments should be enough for each leader to sell this initial meeting to his own domestic audience. Further progress can await subsequent meetings.
One should never refuse to talk to an adversary, even if doing so carries risks. The announcement of the upcoming summit is consistent with a variety of hypotheses about North Korean motives and behavior, and there is no guarantee that it will not end in tears. Only time will tell whether the planned summit will open a new, more cooperative era in North-South relations, and by extension a reduction in tensions throughout Northeast Asia, or will simply mark another dreary iteration in the North Korean extortion game.
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