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How North Korea was lost - to China

Who lost North Korea? The question may sound odd, even impertinent. It carries echoes of a similar question that was bruited next door, 60 years ago, when North Korea was new.

Then, the question was: Who lost China? That was how some in the United States put it. They were anguished and angry that their man, Chiang Kai-shek, had unaccountably been chased off the mainland by an unknown communist upstart called Mao Zedong. In the emerging Cold War, which rapidly dissolved the pre-1945 anti-fascist global alliance, the world's most populous nation had in this view fallen on the wrong side of the fence. USSR 1, USA 0 - or so it seemed.


That debate - more a witchhunt, really - was nasty as well as presumptuous. In what sense was China ever America's to lose in the first place? Yet geopolitics won't go away.

Koreans don't need telling that - though nor do they like being reminded, understandably. Twice in little over a century, they could only watch in impotent fury as mightier powers first fought over and then carved up their country, with huge and baleful consequences.

Three watersheds
The first such watershed was at the turn of the previous century. After 500 years, Korea's Yi or Choson dynasty was enfeebled and inward-looking, prey to mighty neighbors it had fended off in the past. Two of these, imperial China and Tsarist Russia, were by then themselves creaking and moribund. So it didn't take much for the neighborhood's rising power, Meiji Japan, which had already had its revolution, to trounce both and nab Korea. That grab was completed exactly 100 years ago; an awkward anniversary, to say the least.

Japan's brutal if brief rule - a long occupation or a very short colonialism; take your pick - was ended only by a second outside intervention. You could call it a surgical amputation, but nobody consulted the patient. In 1945, the victorious US and USSR cut Korea in two. This was meant to be temporary; cue hollow laughter. A terrible war ensued, killing millions but settling nothing. By the time the wider world first heard of Korea, there were two of them.

Today, the peninsula looks on the brink of a third epochal shift. North Korea, at least as we have known it, is finished. It may cling on grimly for a while, but an ailing Kim Jong-il can't march his weary, half-starved and increasingly mutinous serfs down a dead end forever.

So what next in Pyongyang? Re-enter geopolitics. We tend to neglect this dimension, in part because North Korea has made itself such a royal pain to everyone. A framework such as the nuclear six-party talks, bringing together both Koreas and the Big Four powers - China, the US, Japan and Russia - may create an illusion of regional unity. Yet this is misleading.

True, nobody wants a nuclear Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). And everyone would like Kim to wise up and reform his collapsed economy. (Even Cuba is embracing markets now. And then there was one ...)

But beyond that, convergence starts to diverge. The Cold War may be over, but good old-fashioned spheres of influence are alive and well. The present conjuncture has a strong whiff of a gathering storm, and of the 1890s - with one crucial difference.

The rueful old Korean sokdam (proverb) – "when whales fight, the shrimp's back is broken" - no longer applies. Never again will Korea be a bystander in its own history. The peninsula today boasts the two strongest states it has ever seen. Each in its different way has gained global heft: the South as an industrial power, the North as a military threat and general pest.

But one of those roads leads nowhere. Like the Taewongun (regent) whose late-19th century efforts to keep the world at bay earned Korea the sobriquet "hermit kingdom", behind the ramparts Kim Jong-il has not truly protected his realm, merely enfeebled it. North Korea today is like some rotten little fruit. The question is into whose lucky lap this rancid plum will fall.

We are back in the 1890s again - but with a larger field of contenders, and with any luck no risk of war this time (although you never know). Moreover, while much is yet unclear about North Korea's future and the transition may yet prove perilous, we already have a winner, if only because three rival contenders, whether deliberately or by mishap and inadvertence, have already yielded the field. In each case, you can understand why they took their bat home, but you wonder if they'd really thought it through. Let's review each of this trio in turn.

From the USSR to Russia
The DPRK was Moscow's creation. Kim Il-sung came home in 1945 in Red Army uniform, but soon wriggled out of it, literally and metaphorically. Yet for 45 years, even while Kim trilled shrilly about juche (self-reliance), the Soviet Union quietly and grimly paid his bills.

By 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev had had enough. In quick succession, he recognized South Korea and abruptly ended aid to the North (and all other clients), plunging its economy into a tailspin. The USSR itself soon dissolved, and Boris Yeltsin was in no mood to court the world's last Stalinist. Vladimir Putin tried to mend fences, meeting Kim Jong-il three years running, but no dice.

How and why did Russia lose North Korea? It's understandable that Moscow got fed up with the ingrate rogues in Pyongyang, but whatever happened to raison d'etat? Today, the power that first created North Korea has the least power in determining its future: a striking irony.

Much of this is about money. North Korea's debts to the former USSR exceed US$8 billion, and despite a reported deal it's still not clear how much if any is being repaid. So Moscow refuses to throw good money after bad. Trade has shriveled, and Russia's only major recent investment is to modernize the cross-border railway to North Korea's ice-free port of Rajin.

Fair enough, in a way. But it leaves Russia with less influence on the peninsula than ever.

Japan on the sidelines
Then there is, or was, Japan. This was a rum do. For decades, neither the lack of official ties nor bitter Korean memories impeded pragmatic contacts between Tokyo and Japan.

There were two major go-betweens. Koreans in Japan, though mostly hailing from the South, at first tended to support the North politically (hard as that may be to imagine now). Japan obliged by colluding with Kim Il-sung to send 90,000 of them "home": a little-known and shameful story, brilliantly told by Tessa Morris-Suzuki in her book Exodus to North Korea.

Their wiser kin who stayed in Japan went back and forth. Some did business: Japan was long North Korea's number two trade partner, after the USSR. Other regular visitors came from Japan's Socialist Party (JSP), whose guilt-based pro-North stance did not stop them reporting obediently to the Foreign Ministry about their trips across the "Sea of No Agreed Name".

In 1990, it briefly seemed more was possible. The legendary Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) kingmaker Shin Kanemaru went to Pyongyang, and got on well with Kim Il-sung. Opening formal relations would have yielded $10 billion in aid: handy, with Soviet subsidies gone.

Might Japan have filled the vacuum left by the USSR, had each side played its cards better? We'll never know. Shin quit in 1993 amid a raft of scandals, with North Korean gold as Exhibit B.

A decade later came another breakthrough attempt, which backfired badly. In 2002, the then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi flew to Pyongyang, the first top Japanese leader to do so. He got Kim Jong-il, astonishingly, to admit and apologize for past kidnappings, hitherto indignantly denied. The five kidnapped survivors - eight had mysteriously died - were repatriated.

Yet instead of putting out a fire as intended, this fanned the flames. North Korea's refusal to tell a full or credible story about abductees who had perished, including 13-year old schoolgirl Megumi Yokota, infuriated Japanese public opinion, egged on by the same sinister rightist forces who seek to whitewash the past brutalities of Japanese imperialism.

Since then, things have gone from bad to worse. Japan has piled on sanctions, and now bans all trade with North Korea. Even regime change, with the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) promising all manner of winds of change on other fronts, has made little difference here.

Is this wise? Even on a register of threats, past abductions are surely outweighed by present danger from North Korean missiles and nukes. Like Moscow, Tokyo has every reason to be angry with Pyongyang and every right to shun it. Yet one has to ask - though in today's Japan it can be risky - whether this stance truly serves the long-term national interest. Its predictable result is to leave Japan, even more so than Russia, largely outside the North Korean loop: an onlooker more than an active player, just when things are getting interesting in Pyongyang.

South Korea: Sunset for Sunshine
North Korea's third potential suitor came later to the game, for obvious reasons. After false dawns in the 1970s and 1990s, sustained inter-Korean engagement finally took off in 1998 with Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine" policy, continued by his successor, Roh Moo-hyun. Each held a summit in Pyongyang with Kim Jong-il, who did not make a reciprocal trip to Seoul.

Such asymmetry made many impatient with sunshine. Yet it was not moonshine, as critics sneered. The precedent of chancellor Willy Brandt's "Ostpolitik" in Germany should have taught the lesson that this was a long-term strategy, whose goal was not appeasement but leverage.

South Korean conservatives lacked that insight and patience. President Lee Myung-bak, elected in late 2007, lost no time in cutting much-needed rice aid, canceling win-win joint projects agreed by Roh, and telling Kim Jong-il that future cooperation depended on his first surrendering his nuclear arsenal. All quite reasonable in theory - but utterly unrealistic.

Two years on, we see the result. A furious North reacted the only way it knows how and lashed out, in March torpedoing the Southern corvette Cheonan. (Yes they did; of course they did; you know they did.) That was a vicious blow, which as doubtless intended has left Lee reeling.

With most of the world uninterested and even many South Koreans skeptical, less than six months later Lee is now busy scrambling to get past this and mend fences, offering flood aid and with family reunions upcoming. That's good - but nearly three years have been wasted.

Or worse, it may be too little too late. Lee lost the plot, and maybe he has lost the North too - permanently, or for the foreseeable future. Why, despite the Cheonan, is he now rushing to build bridges after all? Because an ailing, bankrupt and possibly desperate Kim Jong-il has just made his second visit in under four months to the one power he can still trust: China.

And the winner is ...
So there's our winner. Its rivals' missteps have helped, but Beijing has long played a skillful, patient game. Like Moscow, it irked the North by recognizing South Korea (in 1992), but unlike the abrupt Russians it worked hard to soothe sensitivities.

Eighteen years on, guess which power is the top trade partner of both Koreas? Now, there's subtle hegemony for you. No prizes either for guessing who's snapping up North Korea's mines, and beginning the lengthy, costly process of modernizing its decrepit infrastructure.

Face it: who else has the motive, or the means? As all agree, China's overriding worry about North Korea is not Kim's nukes but fear of collapse, and the chaos this could cause on its own borders. Beijing's consistent strategy is not to paint Kim into a corner, no matter what.

Knowing that, how did policymakers in Seoul or Washington delude themselves that China would hurry to join a chorus of condemnation over the Cheonan? No way. Beijing squirmed a bit, but the game was worth the candle. Let Washington and Seoul huff and puff. All that achieved was to push an ever-more isolated North Korea further into China's orbit and influence.

Nothing is certain, especially about North Korea where forecasts (this writer's not least) have a habit of turning out wrong. I expected North Korea to collapse long ago: guilty as charged, m'lud. I understimated this tough regime's staying power, or the horrors it would impose on its people - including famine - to cling to power while refusing to see sense.

But this can't go on forever. The old game of militant mendicancy is finally up. Kim Jong-il's frail health, a delicate succession, and an empty treasury - United Nations sanctions have hit arms exports, and crime doesn't pay like it used to - make defying the entire world just too risky.

North Korea needs a sugar daddy. There is only one candidate left standing, and one who fits the bill perfectly. It may not be a marriage made in heaven, mind you. Pyongyang will keep squawking, and even try the old game of playing off its interlocutors - as in its latest thaw with Seoul.

An offer they can't refuse
But at the end of the day Beijing is making an offer no one else can match, and which North Korea can't refuse. It goes roughly like this: Okay, we'll bail you out, we'll guarantee your security, we'll even stomach your weird monarchical tendencies - unless the kid turns out to be a complete klutz, in which case you know what to do. Jang Song-taek (brother-in-law to Kim Jong-il) knows the score.

You can count on us too not to shame you by spelling all this out and giving the game away. But yes, we do need something in return. Two things. First: markets. For goodness sake just leave them alone, nay let 'em rip - as we've been telling you to, ever since Deng Xiaoping.

Look where we are now, and where you are. We'll do the heavy lifting of investment, so you have functioning factories and railways again. But you have to let it happen. No going back.

Second: no more trouble. We know it may take time for you to give up your footling pesky nukes. But we need an absolute guarantee of no more tests, or else. No other provocations, either. Our People's Liberation Army will teach your Korean People's Army how to adapt and how to make money. The new North Korea will be a good global citizen, trading like we do. The returns are good. It beats mugging any day.

And guess what? You'll love it, all of you. You'll prosper. No more worries. Your people will eat; your elite will make money. What's not to like? Just stop all that shouting and marching; what a relief, eh? The rest of the cult can stay, if you must. All hail the young general Kim Jong-eun, finally fulfilling grandpa's dream of peace and prosperity for all! (With a bit of help from his friends, but we're modest.) You'll love him. You really will.

The only game in town?
This seems to me a plausible scenario for North Korea's future. In fact, I struggle to imagine any other. Korean reunification? Maybe in the very long run - but right now, who wants it?

Not the North, whose elite know the fate of their East German counterparts after unification. Can we really expect them to put their faith in the tender mercies of Lee Myung-bak? Even under Kim Dae-jung or Roh Moo-hyun it would have been tricky. What place would there be for most of them, frankly, in a reunified peninsula? Not a privileged one, that's for sure.

Ordinary North Koreans, too, have learned, from the trickle who have made it to Seoul, that South Korea is no land of milk and honey. True, they'd like a life, and to eat. But China, or a North Korea open to and learning from China, might look a better bet on that score.

Nor is the South enthusiastic, despite all the rhetoric. It would be embarrassing and galling to see the North become a Chinese satellite - yet perhaps also a huge relief. Let Beijing bear the brunt, the burden, and the costs of transforming the madhouse they have long sustained.

Further down the line, blood could prove thicker. By 2040 or so, a by then semi-transformed North Korea may tire of great Han chauvinism, slough off the Chinese yoke, and embrace the cousins south of the demilitarized zone (which would long ago have become more permeable). They'd be easier to absorb, too, now smoothed by a few decades of Chinese-style modernity.

Speculative, to be sure. But what other scenarios are there? And though from one viewpoint China has edged out rival powers as argued above, presumably to their chagrin, might some of them in truth be quietly relieved to be spared the responsibility? Let China take it on and deliver a new-style North Korea, vibrant and fit for a new century. It could last a long time, and spare the region and world much headache and risk. Does anyone have an alternative?

Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean affairs. A regular visitor to the peninsula, he has followed North Korea for over 40 years.

Source: Asia Times

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