Summitry for Politics’ Sake

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It’s hard not to yawn.

North and South Korea have agreed to hold preliminary military talks on 8 February, in an attempt to defuse heightened tensions on the peninsula.

South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak urged the North to seize a “good chance” to improve relations.

The Koreas will discuss the two deadly attacks by Pyongyang against the South, which killed a total of 50 people, Seoul’s defence ministry said.

The talks may lead to a more senior meeting, possibly at ministerial level.

The perfect message for the New Year holiday, with South Korean citizens trapped in their family headquarters, right? A way for President Lee to look conciliatory, but then not a pushover either? Maybe. But, realistically, I think it’s a chance to bury the excitement of the last few months under a load of meetings. A summit with Kim Jong-il is news; talks leading to talks won’t match family banter for a conversation at the holiday dinner table. Full-time campaigning, Obama-style, has come to Korea!

What’s more, it seems everyone is tired of meetings.

For years the North has expertly improved its bargaining position through brutishness and unpredictability, reaping benefits at the negotiating table—extracting huge amounts of aid, usually, only to return to its old ways when expediency calls.

Mr Lee’s relatively confrontational strategy makes the point that South Korea has tired of the game. There seems to be a consensus forming in Seoul, Washington and Tokyo that the days of bribing for peace (only to repeat the same bribing in time) are at an end, at long last. North Korea’s government will not be able to enter any talks without knowing this. The fact that it faces new challenges preserving control at home, just when it is gearing up for the succession of a chubby and untested twenty-something whose only qualification appears to be that his father is Kim Jong-il, increases the pressure.

Unfortunately though, the relative strength or weakness of the North Korean position is overshadowed by the fact that China, the regime’s only friend, persists in backing its old ally by refusing to blame it for any of its various provocations. It has mitigated the effect of sanctions by ramping up its trade with the North

Pyongyang could always use its hysterical brand of diplomacy, to exploit the very real lack of coordination between Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington. Beijing and Pyongyang were always a tighter fit, even when Chinese mandarins complained of North Korean antics. And, that “lips and teeth” friendship is getting tighter still. Beijing has also said little publicly about Pyongyang’s apparent re-nuclearization.

There are three possible explanations for China’s extraordinary tolerance of the Kims’ roguery. One is that it has some sympathy for the North’s claim of being the injured party. An international inquiry blaming North Korea did not lay to rest all the conspiracy theories about the sinking of the Cheonan. And North Korea had repeatedly threatened dire reprisals if military exercises in disputed waters near its shore involved live firing, as those in November did. (In joint exercises in the same area this week, American and South Korean forces cancelled live-fire artillery drills.) Even so it is hard to dispute that the North Korean response was, in the words of Shen Dingli, a Chinese scholar, “completely excessive, disproportionate and outrageous”.

A second explanation is that China’s alliance with North Korea—“as close as lips and teeth”, as the catchphrase has it—gives the Kims special licence. On a trip to Pyongyang last year Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, visited the grave of Mao Anying, a son of Mao Zedong, who died fighting as a Chinese “volunteer” in the Korean war of 1950-53.

That also seems limp. China’s leaders are not a sentimental lot, and if they cling to an alliance with the North Korean regime it must be because they believe it in China’s interests. Which leaves the suggestion that the officials Mr Chun was quoting were either out of line, telling their interlocutor what he wanted to hear or, perhaps, ahead of their time. Mr Chun himself described a generational shift in Chinese attitudes and noted that the Chinese envoy to the six-country talks on North Korea was, contrary to his hopes, not one of the enlightened sophisticates. Rather it was (and still is) Wu Dawei, an older man, whom he called China’s “most incompetent official”, and the American scribe summed up as “an arrogant, Marx-spouting former Red Guard”. The old guard in China still seems to be running Korea policy.

Another leaked cable contains an account of a meeting last year between a senior American official and Singapore’s “minister mentor”, Lee Kuan Yew. He is reported as giving a typically no-nonsense summation of the North Koreans. They are “psychopathic types, with a flabby old chap for a leader who prances around stadiums seeking adulation”, though the next leader may not have “the gumption or the bile of his father and grandfather. He may not be prepared to see people die like flies.” The cable summarises the minister mentor’s view: though China would rather North Korea did not have nukes, it would prefer—even if Japan were also to “go nuclear” in response—a nuclear North Korea to an American presence on its own border.

I’m thrilled President Lee is learning politics. But, he can’t make up for a crippled trilateral quasi-alliance – Hitoshi Tanaka offers some advice for what it’s worth – with his main protectors or Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions with a speech.

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Filed under: East Asia, Korea, Military Tagged: china, dprk, hu jintao, kim jong il, kim jong un, lee myung bak, marcus noland, prc, rajin-sonbong, rok


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