SEOUL - North Korea appears to be testing the will of South Korea's President
Lee Myung-bak while looking forward to a cozy working relationship with the
incoming US administration of president-elect Barack Obama.
That is the optimistic scenario as the North runs through a catalogue of
measures, symbolic and substantive, all geared to force South Korea's
conservative president towards softening his seemingly hardline stance on the
The pessimistic scenario, as the North prepares to close its border with South
Korea and sets new conditions on inspections of its nuclear facilities, is that
a cabal of militarists is taking
control in North Korea at an extremely critical juncture in which leader Kim
Jong-il is too ill to rule effectively.
Whichever theory is correct, North Korean strategists seem to have adopted a
policy of steadily escalating confrontation that began with insulting rhetoric
aimed at Lee for talking tough about verifying North Korea's compliance with an
agreement to disable its nuclear complex at Yongbyon.
The rhetoric is on the verge of turning into action with the North's plan to
close its border with South Korea from December 1. That move would force the
suspension of all activity at the Kaesong industrial complex, where more than
80 South Korean companies employ 35,000 North Korean workers in turning out
light industrial products in what has been the most promising sign of
The next step may be a new freeze on the six-party talks that had resulted in
North Korea’s agreement in February 2007 to stop its nuclear program and the
follow-up agreement of October 3, 2007, in which the North agreed on a specific
process ending in such total dismantlement of the whole program that it would
be impossible to get it going again.
On the same day that the North Korean military talked about shutting the
border, a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Pyongyang said inspection of the
North's nuclear program could not go beyond the Yongbyon facility and the
inspectors could not leave with samples from Yongbyon for testing. That
declaration was contrary to the understanding by which the US had accepted the
credibility of Pyongyang's assurances and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
had removed North Korea's name from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.
On top of all that, North Korea also cut off the emergency line by which Red
Cross officials on both sides have been able to communicate at the truce
village of Panmunjom, next to Kaesong - a gesture that is viewed in Seoul as
"symbolic" but may portend trouble quite soon.
The real fear is that North Korea's opaque military command may want to show it
means business. It was the military that announced the plan to close the
border, and it was the military that on two occasions in the past six weeks
called for talks at Panmunjom to protest a campaign by North Korean defectors
in the South to send balloons over the North dropping leaflets exposing "the
truth" about Kim Jong-il and the origins of the Korean War.
"It is important to know this is the North Korean military making these
statements," said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongkuk University in Seoul.
"They have to follow through. Otherwise, South Korea will not believe them."
But what exactly will North Korea do militarily if South Korea insists it has
no authority to order a halt to the leaflet drops by civilian activists? And
how will forcing the closure of the Kaesong complex help North Korea when the
North takes a large percentage of the profits from everything made there?
The answer apparently is that South Korea will have to yield to North Korea's
demands, stopping the leaflet drops and endorsing the policy of reconciliation
espoused by Lee’s liberal predecessors in power, while the North isolates South
Korea by currying favor with Obama's incoming team.
Pro-North emissaries and mouthpieces, including the paper published by the
North Korean residents' group in Japan, have been talking favorably of the
possibilities for improving US-North Korean relations - possibly replacing the
Korean War armistice with a peace treaty, as has long been demanded by
Lee has said he would not object if Obama were to meet with Kim Jong-il, all in
keeping with Obama's campaign statement that he would be glad to meet with the
leaders of countries hostile to the US, but Lee's remark on that topic may
hardly be taken at face value. For one thing, Lee may be fairly sure that Kim,
believed to have suffered a stroke that may have partially paralyzed him, is in
no condition for a summit with the new American leader.
For another, the Blue House, the center of presidential power in Seoul, has
specifically warned North Korea not to think it is possible to try to divide
South Korea from its American ally. Or, as a Blue House official put it, North
Korea "must have misunderstood the situation if the border and communication
line closures are intended to isolate South Korea in its diplomacy with the
Confidence around the Blue House was definitely buoyed by a recent visit by
Colin Powell, the retired US general and former secretary of state, who's seen
as having a direct pipeline to Obama and may be in for a high-level appointment
in his administration. Powell assured Lee personally that the US would work
closely with South Korea, just as Washington has managed to do through a decade
of sometimes obviously differing views on how to deal with the North.
The difference is that Washington's problem in the eight years of George W
Bush's presidency was how to mesh his initially hardline outlook with the
"Sunshine" policy of reconciliation initiated by Kim Dae-jung at the outset of
his presidency in 1998. Now the question is whether Obama, besieged by refugees
from the administration of Bush's conciliatory predecessor, Bill Clinton, will
want to go along with the conservative outlook of Lee.
The solution may boil down to money - huge amounts of it. The reason North
Korea is making a fuss about removing samples from Yongbyon, in the views of
analysts in the South, is that the other parties in the negotiating process
have failed to come through with vast infusions of aid as promised under the
"action-for-action" formula of the nuclear agreements. The other parties are
Japan, China, South Korea, the US and Russia.
Money may also be the reason for the problems with South Korea. Lee has not
exactly repudiated the joint communiques with Kim Jong-il that were signed by
Kim Dae-jung in the June 2000 inter-Korean summit and by Kim’s successor, Roh
Moo-hyun, in the October 2007 summit, but he certainly isn't endorsing them.
North Korea is making an issue of Lee's non-endorsement, citing it in
statements denouncing him as a "traitor", "lackey" and other nasty names. One
reason may be that Roh in the October 2007 summit promised programs for
renovating the North's infrastructure, building railways and communications
systems, all badly needed. If Lee were to endorse those communiques, he could
then follow up as promised by Roh.
Lee has also promised economic aid for North Korea, but he's holding it all
back while awaiting real proof the North is disabling its nuclear complex. He's
also added the proviso that North Korea stop abusing the human rights of its
citizens, an especially sensitive issue on which Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun
Now the question is whether there's a face-saving way out of the current
mini-crisis - or will it have to reach crisis proportions before all sides
settle on an uneasy solution. South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-kwan takes
a somewhat philosophical view. North Korea’s "clear negotiation pattern", he
said recently, "has always been to create a crisis before resolving something -
and trying to use that point to secure further concessions."
If that's not the most optimistic scenario, it may at least be the most likely
outcome after the transition of power in Washington.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.