Leaders of the two Koreas returned to their respective capitals this week with
deals worth billions of dollars and potentially guaranteeing energy security
for the two natural resource-deprived states.
South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak concluded a US$4.1 billion deal to
develop the Surgil gas fields in Uzbekistan and made headway in developing ties
with Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Kim Jong-il returned to North Korea from the
Russian Federation with tentative plans to build a trans-Korean pipeline that
would deliver Russian natural gas to the Korean Peninsula.
While the economic ramifications of the deals are significant, Lee and Kim's
forays were also motivated by more traditional political
objectives. The presence of a permanent pipeline delivering fuel to the North
(if not, the steady stream of rent for delivery of natural gas on to the South)
would lessen the impact of the sanctions regime imposed by the international
community. At the same time, attracting diplomatic attention over nuclear arms
control and energy helps Pyongyang deepen valuable diplomatic contacts.
For Seoul, finding a reliable source of energy represents a highly crucial task
as its economic prowess lends both political and diplomatic standing for South
Korea in the international community. Its standing plays a crucial role in
South Korea's ability to leverage diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang. At the end
of the day, any diplomatic gesture by either Korea is tantamount to bolstering
national security and extending the regimes' claim over the peninsula.
Both Seoul and Pyongyang have consistently used diplomacy to forward
territorial claims or economically sabotage each other. In 1973, the UN General
Assembly dissolved the UNCURK (United Nations Commission for the Unification
and Rehabilitation of Korea) after North Korea won endorsements for the motion
from newly independent African states. 
Around the same time, after recognizing the danger of the North acceding to the
United Nations as the sole legitimate political entity on the peninsula, the
South disavowed the Hallstein Doctrine and began seeking diplomatic relations
with states regardless of their relationship with North Korea.  Alongside
seeking new ties abroad, Seoul also jealously guarded traditional contacts such
as Japan, pressuring Tokyo to limit its loans to Pyongyang.
It is particularly interesting to note that these diplomatic maneuvers occurred
while the two Koreas were discussing basic groundwork for unification.
Therefore, it is difficult to assume the intentions of either state by simply
observing their outward aggression towards one another.
North Korea no doubt had ulterior motives in reaching out to the Russian
Federation. In addition to taking advantage of Russia's desires to play a
larger role in Northeast Asia for food assistance (See
Pyongyang plays on Moscow's desire, Asia Times Online, August 12,
2011), many observers suggest that Pyongyang may be seeking to modernize its
air force by acquiring Russian jets. 
Korean People's Air Force chief Li Byeongcheol accompanied Kim Jong-il on his
visit to Ulan Ude and while the details of his role in the negotiations are
unclear, North Korea's MiG-29s are two decades behind South Korea's F-15Ks and
present a serious challenge to the North's defense.
Kim Jong-il is playing a clever game. The Russian Federation alone is capable
of providing significant economic and diplomatic support, but by offering to
discuss nuclear nonproliferation, Pyongyang is inviting other ambitious powers
to the table. India, drawn in by the potential of diminishing North Korea's
ties with Myanmar and Pakistan, is due to dispatch a delegation to Pyongyang in
By attracting international attention and providing non-binding promises, North
Korea protects itself from any unanimous action by the international community
to force its nuclear program to an end.
The widespread assumption among policymakers is that North Korea is inherently
isolationist. However, Juche ideology is more concerned about upholding
economic sovereignty than creating economic autarky and if one considers the
great feats accomplished by the North Koreans during the Cold War, it is very
evident that Pyongyang too has a foreign policy conception stretching across
From the very beginning, North Korea was dealt a losing hand in the race for
sole claim over the entire Korean nation. On June 25, 1948 (exactly two years
before the start of the Korean War), the Temporary Commission established by
the UN to observe elections on the Korean Peninsula reported that the election
in South Korea was not only a "valid expression of the free will" of the Korean
people, but also "constituted approximately two-thirds of the people of all
In addition, the passing of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 84
on July 7, 1950, which sanctioned the UN-led military action on behalf of the
Republic of Korea, upheld the legitimacy of Syngman Rhee's government in Seoul
over that of Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang.
Despite being rejected by the international community and recognized by a mere
handful of Soviet satellite states, Pyongyang rejected Moscow's recommendation
in 1956 to gain joint membership in the United Nations alongside Seoul,
revealing its intention to be recognized as the sole legitimate regime on the
Korean Peninsula.  Following this explicit declaration, North Korea actively
engaged the Third World Movement and by 1973, had even established diplomatic
relations with Sweden, Norway and Denmark.
By 1978, North Korea had managed to gain recognition from 93 states, closing
the gap with the South, which at the time maintained relations with 104 states.
In this context, the very fact that both Koreas jointly acceded to the United
Nations in 1991 reveals Pyongyang's incredible diplomatic capacity.
While the collapse of the communist bloc and degeneration of North Korea as a
nuclear rogue state severely damaged Pyongyang's place in the world, navigating
international relations as a pariah state is not a new experience for the
regime. Continuous exploitation of ties with other outcast nations such as
Syria, Iran, Yemen and Myanmar provided an outlet for the regime.
As recently as this spring, and despite increasing US pressure to stop their
cooperation, Pyongyang provided Tehran with highly specialized computer
programs that would facilitate nuclear weapons development.  The ineffective
sanctions regime will be further weakened by the downpayments that governments
will pay to negotiate with Pyongyang.
Across the demilitarized zone, Seoul has not yet made any moves to change the
basic policy of upholding an all-or-nothing "Grand Bargain". While making nods
towards cooperating in the construction of a trans-Korean pipeline, South
Korea's demands for a formal apology for the double attacks in 2010 will stand
in the way of making any breakthroughs.
In addition, regardless of the results of the hinted meetings Pyongyang
regarding the pipelines in November, it is unlikely that Seoul will allow the
pipelines to become a source of leverage for the North. Also, South Korea's
show of military prowess by hosting joint exercises with the United States will
not deter the North from making more daring attacks along the Northern
Limitation Line as the US Seventh Fleet stays away from contested waters in the
The negotiations in Russia and the coming meeting with the Indian
representatives are tests for North Korean foreign policymakers in more broadly
engaging with the world as they did in the 1970s. Pyongyang's objectives have
remained consistent; to maintain parity against US-South Korea military and
diplomatic pressures by whatever means necessary.
While recent negotiations are good avenues to contain the level of violence,
they must be accompanied by substantive and honest promises and guarantees. No
change to the tenuous state of peace marred by contained violence on the Korean
Peninsula will be forthcoming unless fundamental shifts occur in conditions and
the way in which the international community deals with North Korea.
1. Narutshige Michishita, North Korea's Military-Diplomatic Campaigns, 1966-2008.
2. The Hallstein Doctrine was established in West Germany during the 1950s and
defined the establishment of diplomatic relations with East Germany by
non-communist countries as an "unfriendly act." Seoul applied this doctrine
throughout the 1960s when it broke ties with countries like Mauritania and the
Republic of Congo (Congo Brazzaville) in retribution for diplomatically
recognizing Pyongyang. Cited in Jide Owoeye."The Metamorphosis of North Korea's
African Policy." Asian Survey, Vol. 31, No. 7 (July, 1991).
3. Yu, Yong-won, "Rejected by China, did the North ask Russia for fighters?"
ChosunIlbo Online, August 29, 2011.
4. Roche, Elizabeth. "India to take up N-proliferation concerns with North
Korea." Live Mint, August 26, 2011.
5. United Nations, General Assembly. "Official Records: Second Part of the
Report of the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea." Vol. 1, Supplement
9. p. 3.
6. Armstrong, Charles. "Juche and North Korea's Global Aspirations." NKIDP
Working Paper #1, Apr. 2009. 7. Kruger, Paul-Anton.
"GefahrlicheHilfeausPjongjang. (Dangerous Help from Pyongyang)"
SuddeutscheZeitungOnline, August 23, 2011.
Yong Kwon is a Washington-based analyst of international affairs.
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