SEOUL - North Korea is playing a high-stakes game by retrenching on relations
with South Korea and severely circumscribing what other foreigners can do in
the north of the peninsula while Pyongyang gets ready for the next round of
six-party talks on its nukes.
The game, as South Korean officials recognize, is to sideline the South while
expecting the next administration in Washington to adopt a conciliatory
attitude in the rush to get on with disablement and then dismantlement of its
It's possible North Korea could even get luckier than hoped for and wring
significant concessions from the United States in the next
round of talks opening December 8 in Beijing.
Might President George W Bush just love to be able to claim a diplomatic
success vis-a-vis the North in the last few weeks of his presidency? Talk about
pre-emptive strikes - how about pre-empting all the advisers to president-elect
Obama who've been talking big about a comprehensive policy that would bring
about rapprochement with North Korea after all else has failed?
Even if US-North Korean rapprochement is not going to happen right away, at the
least North Korea expects to leave South Korea as the odd man out of a process
in which the US stampedes for more good-news deals. With this goal in mind, the
North is willing to risk vastly diminished income from the Kaesong economic
zone across the line some 80 kilometers north of here and to forget about
tourism from South Korea to the ancient capital of Kaesong next to the zone.
North Korea expects to keep the 88 or so factories in the zone humming away
with more than 35,000 North Korean workers. But how interested will South
Korean companies be in maintaining their operations at greatly reduced staffs?
And what are South Koreans to make of the North's halting a daily freight
service to the zone on tracks built at South Korea's expense as a precursor to
the resumption of trains through North Korea to China and Russia?
The risk increases on Friday after South Korea pulls out the half-dozen
officials it posts at the joint Inter-Korean Exchanges and Cooperation
Consultation Office inside the zone. How many of the 88 South Korean companies
will want to keep anyone there without a few South Korean security officials
around in case of problems?
North Korea, however, may hope to make up for all the losses from its bold move
on the border by stringing the US along in the six-party talks. The US envoy,
Sung Kim, has been here this week talking up cooperation with South Korea, but
he's not exactly reassuring when he says the US will push for the right to
remove "samples" from the North's nuclear complex at Yongbyon in the face of
North Korea's clear-cut "no way" riposte.
All North Korea need do is respond with insistence on "action for action" - the
action of the US and others to include the shipment of another few hundred
million tons of heavy oil plus some other forms of energy aid - and promise to
talk about "sampling" in the next phase of the nuclear deal when the North is
supposed to completely dismantle its nuclear program.
North Korea will have to do some fast talking to get the US to go along before
Bush leaves office. The going is fairly sure to get easier under Obama, at
least if his possible secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, takes up where
husband Bill left off in the final months of his presidency.
It was in October 2000, three months before Clinton stepped down, that
Madeleine Albright, then secretary of state, visited Pyongyang, took
photographs with the Dear Leader and then let him escort her and her top
sidekick, Wendy Sherman, to an early version of the Arirang Festival in May Day
Stadium. There she watched in awe as 100,000 performers, including 50,000
holding flashcards on one entire side of the stands, held her spellbound as
they ran through scenes of North Korea's economic and military prowess.
Albright returned with unbridled enthusiasm for Kim Jong-il. President Clinton
even toyed with the idea of going to Pyongyang before his presidency ended,
before getting bogged down in the Florida recount that gave Bush the
presidency. Now with another Clinton possibly in charge of foreign policy, and
Albright in a key advisory role, North Korea can only hope that Obama is
serious when he indicated that he would be glad to talk to any foreign leader,
including Kim Jong-il.
The real dividend for North Korea would be the achievement of its long-held
goal of opening diplomatic relations with the US. It would be almost impossible
for that to happen in the time left for Bush, but is more than likely early on
under Obama. His foreign policy aides have argued there's no harm in opening
embassies in each other's capitals as a way to promote six-party dialogue and
keep up lower-level dialogue in between formal talks in Beijing.
South Korea's conservative President Lee Myung-bak has said more than once that
he doesn't object to Obama meeting Kim Jong-il. Still, South Koreans have long
been fearful of relations between Washington and Pyongyang. They see North
Korea as angling to freeze the South out of talks for a peace treaty in place
of the armistice that ended the Korean War - an armistice that South Korea's
former president Rhee Syngman denounced as a ruse to permanently divide the
Korean Peninsula and refused to have a negotiator sign.
For now, Lee is adopting a self-consciously composed public position, saying
his government will do all it can to reopen dialogue with the North and remain
calm in the face of all insults, threats and unkind deeds. South Korea is even
following through on an earlier promise of 3,000 tons of steel to North Korea -
even though it's no longer talking about sending food and fertilizer.
North Korea's increasingly shrill attacks on Lee - climaxed by the closure of
the borders - deepen the South's fears of the implications of rapprochement
between Washington and Pyongyang. What if Obama, in a peace-making mode
reminiscent of the presidency of Jimmy Carter, actually decided on a vast
reduction in the US military presence?
One reason for the North's vituperations may well be that the generals
surrounding Kim Jong-il seriously view South Korea, under conservative rule, as
a military threat. Kim Jong-il has been showing up of late, most recently at a
factory, but photos of him with left hand in pocket do nothing to contradict
reports that he suffered a stroke in August.
Could the generals have convinced Kim, who may not be entirely in control of
his senses, much less his regime, of the need to reduce the South Korean
presence at Kaesong to quell any ambition South Korea may have of taking over
the place? South Korea rightists, with long memories, will never forget that
Kaesong was inside the South, below the 38th parallel, when the Korean War
began. Many still view the city, and the economic zone, as rightfully theirs.
Amid such considerations, the insistence of North Korean defectors on
continuing to fire balloons laden with propaganda leaflets destined for the
North appears a minor annoyance. South Korea won't stop them before Monday, the
date for closure of the border, and even if it did, North Korea would not
South Korea's Unification Ministry promises to "stay firm" in the face of what
it calls "a serious step in creating a substantial setback" for inter-Korean
relations. North Korean strategists, though, see no need to back down,
confident as they are that the US is not about to support the South with big
talk from Washington, much less action.
The only action Washington is likely to consider, as far as North Korean
negotiators are concerned, is "action for action" in the form massive infusions
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.