WASHINGTON — Now that the novelty and euphoria of the remarkable Korean summit have faded, the world is left scratching its head and wondering what it all adds up to. Has one of the world’s most dangerous flash points suddenly been defused? Have the tectonic plates of the East Asian strategic equation begun to shift? The short answer is everything has changed, yet nothing has changed.
However symbolic, the first such summit in half a century was indeed a historic achievement, perhaps the beginning of a protracted endgame in Korea. It offered new hope of peace and national reconciliation. To see the world’s most mysterious political figure prove to be a not particularly unusual fellow, though one with an impressive sense of political theater certainly made fools of most Western analysts who for years have portrayed Kim Jong Il as either a bizarre wacko or a buffoon. Not to mention all the bright lights at the highest reaches of the Clinton administration, who quietly argued his regime was about to collapse. And for political courage and strength of character, Kim Dae Jung has certainly earned his place in history — and a good shot at the Nobel Peace Prize
Yet all the smiles, embraces and pledges notwithstanding, five decades of Cold War ice have hardly melted overnight. Nor has the big question been answered: Is Kim Jong Il’s radical shift one of style and tactics or is it strategic — is North Korea really changing? The North Korean divisions, artillery and Scuds are still deployed near the demilitarized zone. It still has its chemical weapons. Pyongyang is still working on its third generation of ballistic missiles and in all likelihood a covert nuclear-weapons program. Nor are there new signs that Pyongyang is suddenly opening up or adopting radical economic reforms as China did two decades ago.
Indeed, all too familiar North Korean rhetoric and gamesmanship is still in evidence in the summit’s aftermath. One day after the U.S. recycled its unimplemented decision of last September to lift most sanctions, Pyongyang Radio rebroadcast a 1999 Kim Jong Il speech warning against “economic reforms and market openings that would certainly lead to our destruction.” This was followed by another broadcast chastising the U.S. for its “hostility” and alleged war preparations.
This “same old, same old” contrasts sharply with the warm and fuzzy mood in both Seoul and Washington, and no less, with Kim Jong Il’s summit performance and the “join hands” summit declaration. Will the real Kim Jong Il please stand up?
The full scope of Pyongyang’s game plan will only be revealed over time. But clearly, Kim has embarked on an uncharacteristically subtle game of multiple-pronged diplomacy designed to prop up his regime and failing economy. Moving the center of gravity of Korean diplomacy from a U.S.-North Korea framework to a North-South venue will not only be more likely to produce concrete benefits for Pyongyang. It may also increase leverage with the U.S. as the North expands ties around the world, or at least insulate Pyongyang from pressure if a less accommodating administration takes office after the November U.S. presidential elections.
Above all, this new diplomacy reflects a not-so-hidden agenda on both sides. For all the references to unification, a mutual goal of any new detente is (at least for the foreseeable future) precisely the opposite: achieve reconciliation to reinforce both Korean states, each reconciled to the other. Reviving its economy is key to North Korea’s medium- to long-term viability; beneath South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s talk of “peaceful coexistence” is the fear of a North Korean collapse the South can ill afford. In short, Kim Jong Il wants his regime to survive; the South wants to avoid the many costs of absorbing the North and buy time for a gradual “soft landing.”
Kim’s new “outward” strategy may also create an environment allowing him to gradually pursue step-by-step limited economic reforms essential to maintaining stability. One important indicator of any serious economic opening will be the success of negotiations with Hyundai to build a huge industrial park at Haeju near the western port of Nampo. If realized, this project would employ 40,000 North Koreans and require Pyongyang to cede control to Hyundai as well as expose its workers to contact with the South.
But no such deals have been realized yet. In fact, one troubling consequence of the summit is an unwarranted sense of relief in South Korea. Recent polls suggest that 90 percent of South Koreans now have positive image of North Korea and 53 percent thought conflict is a remote possibility. Just why do they think Pyongyang has 600,000 troops and 11,000 artillery tubes within 100 km of the demilitarized zone?
The danger is that such giddiness may let down the guard of the South Korean public and allow Kim Jong Il to exploit the situation. Washington and Seoul face some tough defense decisions: In light of the new situation do they cancel upcoming military exercises? And what about South Korea’s military modernization efforts: Should its own missile development and other weapons acquisition be put on hold? Still more troubling is loose talk about the future of the U.S.-South Korean alliance and the U.S. military presence in South Korea.
These questions underscore the urgency of testing Kim Jong Il’s intentions. If he is serious about reducing tensions and increasing cooperation, it requires more than nice words at a summit, and even more than allowing divided families to reunite, though that is an important measure of sincerity as well. It requires reducing the military threat.
Kim Dae Jung has suggested major economic projects in the North, including railways, roads, communications networks and energy grids. Moving North Korean forces back from the demilitarized zone, or better yet, mutual reductions of conventional forces should be the price of major assistance. For South Koreans this is perhaps more threatening than missiles and nuclear weapons, and no less important.
Moreover, if the words of the Joint Declaration signed June 15 about building up trust are serious, conventional-force reductions would be a dramatic indicator of intentions. It would be unwise to proceed with large-scale economic aid (at least for the foreseeable future) and investment in the North without such reciprocity.
But such progress on the core issue of North-South reconciliation would open the prospect of resolving the missile and nuclear questions, which are the symptoms of the problem, while the North-South division is the root cause. Then and only then would it be time to rethink the U.S. military presence in Korea — not necessarily to withdraw, but to restructure.
At the end of the day, resolving the Korea question, like East Asia’s other flash point, the China-Taiwan issue, will redraw the Asia-Pacific geopolitical landscape with profound new challenges to U.S. interests and the Japan-U.S. alliance. But don’t hold your breath; it is more likely to happen slowly, like watching grass grow.
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