Korean puzzle

Published : Sep 25, 2009 00:00 IST

in Singapore

IS the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea becoming a responsible stakeholder in a peace process for the stability of the Korean peninsula? Or is the DPRK leader, Kim Jong-il, simply jockeying for some strategic space to ride out of his growing isolation on the international stage?

These are questions fast coming under the scanner of the United States and the DPRKs estranged ethnic neighbour, South Korea. However, posers of this kind, sparked by some of Kims major moves in recent weeks, are not vacuous. And, in the absence of an authoritative pronouncement by Kim, the long-unsettled issue of stability in the Korean neighbourhood acquired such Western overtones by August-end.

No immediate shadow was cast on these new Korean-neighbourhood dynamics by some other late-August reports. The United Arab Emirates had just then prevented an illegal shipment of conventional arms from the DPRK to Iran. Both the DPRK and Iran had, at one stage, figured in an axis of evil that George W. Bush, the previous U.S. President, saw as a challenge to his country.

Aside from the DPRK-Iran angle, conspicuous in the Korean theatre, there was something more difficult to fathom as this was written. It was Kims studied silence in the immediate wake of South Koreas failure to deploy a satellite in an orbital path around the earth on August 25. Regional experts were expecting the event, subsequently described by Seoul as a half-success, to serve as a litmus test of Pyongyangs real intentions. The puzzle was why did Kim initiate what could be seen either as his new politics of conciliation towards the wider world or, more simply, as his new gamesmanship?

There was also a complex reasoning for the experts expectations of a litmus test. These were based on perceptions about the DPRKs sense of equality with South Korea as the only other member-state of the Korean fraternity. It was, therefore, expected that Pyongyang would want to judge the response of the wider world to Seouls attempt at a satellite launch. After all, the most recent phase of a chill in Kims engagement with the larger international community followed its icy reaction to the DPRKs controversial launch of a satellite in April.

Western experts and South Korea deemed that no satellite of the DPRK ever struck an orbital path around the earth following that April launch. All the same, the United Nations Security Council did move against Pyongyang on that occasion, as indeed at some other times as well. The relevant issue here is not any quibble about the degree or quality of the Councils response to the DPRKs purported satellite launch. More importantly, the DPRK knows that two if its non-hostile interlocutors and yesteryear allies, China and Russia, have in recent years sided with the U.S. on a key issue. This pertains to Kims pursuit of nuclear weapons, ballistic missile capabilities, and perhaps also a genuine scientific exploration of space. Much of the outside world, still led by the U.S., believes that his purported space programme is a smokescreen for perfecting missile launches for hurling nuclear weapons during war.

On a different but related front, the U.S., China and Russia, in their national self-interest, do not wish to see a proliferation of nuclear weapons and of the missiles that can deliver them. This logic applies just as well to the other states with individual nuclear arms programmes.

It was against this background that Kims response to Seouls August 25 satellite failure was widely anticipated. At one level, he might have now derived comfort from the fact that the DPRKs ethnic neighbour did not steal a march over him in a space race, as it were. On another plane, Seouls failure deprived him of a chance to lampoon the anticipated double standard of the wider world in judging the two Koreas. South Koreas effort, if it had proved successful, was widely expected to have drawn no adverse international reaction of much importance, regardless of the extent of actual appreciation.

Above all, Seouls half successful satellite venture punctuated, without causing a pause, Kims diplomacy of conciliation towards the wider world. The reason was both simple and profound. Seoul has adequately emphasised that its objective was a scientific and not a military mission in space. For the DPRK leader, however, it would have been difficult to stay the conciliatory course in the event of any adverse comparisons of him with his South Korean counterpart, President Lee Myung-bak.

As it happened now, Kim made two key moves towards South Korea after the August 25 sky drama. One was his approval for the resumption of reunions of the divided families that live on either side of the so-called demilitarised zone that keeps the two Koreas apart. The reunions were suspended nearly two years ago at the time of Lees ascension to power as an avowed critic of Kims nuclear arms programme. Another of Kims latest moves was his sanction for releasing four South Korean fishermen who had recently strayed on to the DPRK side of the disputed maritime zone.

Even before August 25, Kim made two almost historic moves of conciliation. One bore the stamp of a poignant gesture for inter-Korean amity, while the other bristled with the overtones of a diplomatic coup in his ties with the U.S. Three other events in August, all of them not in the high category of historic moves, completed the picture of a suddenly conciliatory Kim. These three events were the release of a South Korean worker who was earlier accused of seeking to subvert the DPRKs socialist system; the reopening of cross-border contacts along the inter-Korean demilitarised zone; and the reactivation of a hotline link there.

Of the two nearly historic moves, one left the door ajar for a possible new summit between the two Koreas. When South Koreas former President Kim Dae-jung died in August, the DPRKs Kim lost no time in publicly expressing condolences and sending a delegation of special envoys for the departed leaders funeral in Seoul. South Koreas Kim had, while serving as President, propounded the sunshine policy of state-sponsored inter-Korean reconciliation and reunification. And, he held the first-ever inter-Korean summit with the DPRKs Kim in August 2000. Since then, the two Koreas have had a roller-coaster ride several times and a near-hostile equation on some other occasions.

The southern Kim, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his sunshine policy, was a noted pro-democracy dissident during an earlier authoritarian phase of politics in Seoul. Yet, he endeared himself to the DPRKs Kim, an avowed exponent of a military-first policy in his country. A few among Pyongyangs special envoys, who paid homage to the late Kim, later called on President Lee to convey an oral message from the DPRKs Kim. This was believed to be a call for future-oriented inter-Korean ties.

The DPRKs future-oriented ties with the U.S. received a boost of sorts when the two known adversaries held a rare summit-like meeting in Pyongyang on August 4 in the then surcharged ambience of rising tensions. The DPRKs Kim received former U.S. President Bill Clinton, and their talks led to the release of two American journalists, then in detention for a grave crime against the Korean nation [DPRK]. Outwardly, U.S. President Barack Obama was not off the mark when he described Clintons mission as an extraordinary humanitarian effort. However, it will be naive to accept that the Kim-Clinton meeting was all about this humanitarian deal, especially from the DPRK standpoint.

Interestingly, the DPRK, often accused of utter secrecy, broke the news of an exhaustive conversation between the two leaders. By contrast, the U.S., often the advocacy-guru of transparency in international relations, was parsimonious with the details of what transpired.

The extraordinary humanitarian mission began with Clintons touch-down in Pyongyang on a private jet which, over a day later, landed in California. He took home the two reporters, who, according to Pyongyang, were freed only upon a special pardon, which Kim granted them after his talks with Clinton on the DPRKs compulsions of nuclear deterrence and other related issues.

The Kim-Clinton meeting occurred at a place, which, for the U.S. at least, is still the political equivalent of the hidden side of the moon. On August 6, Clinton said he would not shine the spotlight on those talks and seek to tip the scale of Obamas decision-making. The subtle hint was obvious. In 1994, with Clinton at the helm, former President Jimmy Carter played the emissary by travelling to Pyongyang to discuss U.S. concerns over the DPRKs emerging nuclear-weapons programme of the time. And now, Clinton was Kims choice as interlocutor. The 1994 Jimmy Carter intervention led to the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework on Pyongyangs nuclear programme. Much has happened since then.

The DPRKs second nuclear-arms test this year, followed by a stream of ballistic missile tests, poses a qualitatively new challenge to U.S. diplomacy within the China-chaired and now-stalled six-party talks on Korean denuclearisation. An obvious question, in the wake of Clintons pilgrimage to Pyongyang, is whether this can signal a new direction in the U.S.-DPRK equation. This poser has become politically more resonant following Kims other gestures, all in August, towards South Korea itself.

Should the leaders display statesmanship of a high order on all sides, the Korean issues need no longer remain a cartographic delicacy of a bygone era of ideological polarisation in global politics. There is need for a new model of stability in the Korean neighbourhood, and this can well be based on a balance of the security interests of the relevant parties. And the 21st century human security needs must also be integral to this model.

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