|June 21, 2002||atimes.com|
The crab who would be a shark
By Aidan Foster-Carter
"Whales fight, shrimp crushed". That stark sokdam (proverb) tells you how Koreans traditionally viewed their geopolitical fate. A glance at the map explains why. A small peninsula sandwiched among Russia, China and Japan, and with the United States too playing a key role, Korea for the past century or more was mainly a victim of others' designs. In 1945, two of the whales freed it from a third - only to tear the shrimp in two.
In the ensuing Cold War - white-hot in Korea - the peninsula's foreign ties were simple. Two triangles. North Korea had the USSR and China; South Korea had the US and Japan. Simple, but not smooth: each triangle had a weak link. The Sino-Soviet split allowed Kim Il-sung to maneuver deftly between his two big brothers, while in Seoul hatred of Japan prevented as tight an alliance as the US would have wished.
The past half-century has seen both Koreas outgrow shrimp status, even if a victim mentality persists. South Korea today is a dolphin, running rings around the whales - especially a Japan that looks beached. North Korea is more of a shark - or perhaps a crab that has fooled everyone into thinking it's a shark.
Enough of the marine metaphors. In the decade since the end of the Cold War, Korean foreign relations have become more complicated. Seoul now has formal ties with Beijing and Moscow as well as with Washington and Tokyo. Pyongyang can't match that, but it, too, has unofficial links and intermittent dialogue with its old foes. The result is a much more complex and open game, played by six carefully calculating actors.
Three of them at least try to get their act together. Recently, officials from South Korea, Japan and the US met in San Francisco. The Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG) was set up in 1999 to ensure that allied policy towards North Korea marched in step, and stop Pyongyang playing one off against another. This hasn't always been easy. While US president Bill Clinton and his South Korean counterpart Kim Dae-jung agreed on engagement and Japan tagged along, Kim's predecessor Kim Young-sam was suspicious of US feelers to the enemy.
Now the boot is on the other foot. Well into George W Bush's second year as US president, he has rhetoric aplenty on North Korea - but still no discernible policy. So a year after saying he was ready for talks anywhere any time, and more than a month after Pyongyang finally agreed to come to the table, the US has yet to get its act together and decide a concrete strategy. As the Washington Post reported on June 4, the administration is split. Post columnist Jim Hoagland puts it more starkly: "It's jihad inside the administration" on foreign policy in general, pitting a moderate Colin Powell at State against a hawkish Donald Rumsfeld at Defense.
To be sure, the North Korean question is anything but simple. Two recent columns listed the many and varied bones one might want to pick with Pyongyang. My advice would be: prioritize weapons of mass destruction (WMD: nukes, missiles), and try a package approach that gives Kim Jong-il a real incentive to make a deal. The stick he knows about; so try carrots. Bribery, if you will. Cheaper than war, any day.
Meanwhile, with US policy in limbo, others have filled the vacuum - most prominently, Russia. President Vladimir Putin has mended Moscow's fences after a decade of hostility under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Yet despite the Siberian train trips and surface warmth - the dear leader now regularly receives Russian visitors - one has to ask: Where's the beef? It's not clear that anything of substance is happening. Aid? A small matter of a US$3.6 billion Soviet-era debt has to be settled before Moscow will pony up any more. Besides, Putin's turn to the West since September 11 has stymied any hopes in Pyongyang of rebuilding an anti-US alliance.
What of China? Unlike Moscow, Beijing still bankrolls Pyongyang - albeit not generously, and through gritted teeth. That tie is still strong enough to stop President Jiang Zemin accepting an invitation to the World Cup opening in Seoul. Yet after 20 years of urging its maverick ally to reform, China is fed up. The recent refugee incidents may be the last straw. As in Zhang Tianguang's striking article in Asia Times Online, we now hear Chinese saying out loud that "the North Korean government has long caused trouble for China".
According to Cheng Ming, a Hong Kong monthly, real relations are now as bad as in 1967: the height of the three-way Sino-Soviet-North Korea spat, when there were border disputes and Red Guard posters labeled Kim Il-sung as a "fat revisionist". On this account, last month Pyongyang formally accused China of a pro-South Korea stance and threatened retaliation, including exposing secret agreements or even closing the border. If Jiang Zemin's tastes extend to Clint Eastwood as well as Elvis, he might well riposte: "Make my day."
Kim Jong-il really should rethink the risks of being a pest as a career strategy. One day, others' patience and his luck will run out. As the Clinton-Bush shift has shown, a change of government can be ominous. In Japan, as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's star wanes, there is growing talk that the next premier could be Shintaro Ishihara, the outspokenly hawkish governor of Tokyo. Interviewed in June 10's Newsweek, Ishihara was asked how he would deal with the dozen Japanese thought to be held in Pyongyang. His answer: "I would start a war with North Korea to bring them back". Better cut a deal with Bush while the going is good.
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