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Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012

Bringing Kim in from the cold

Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — How many billions of words have been wasted in outpourings from newspapers, radio and television, from professors and think-tanks in the United States and round the world, all trying to guess what the death of Kim Jong Il means for the Koreas, China Asia and the rest of the world.

Will 2012 offer a continuation of the dangerously sulky standoff between North Korea and the rest of the world, or might Great Successor Kim Jong Un be tempted to a fiery confrontation to show he is really in command, or perhaps the young man might wish to share the benefit of his Swiss education by opening the country's doors and windows to some fresh air and economic benefits from the outside world?

Then again is Kim Jong Un really in charge in spite of the profession of loyalty by the military and collection of his father's titles as North Korea's great dictator? Can the military refrain from throwing their weight around to test the new leader? Is Jang Song Taek, the young Kim's uncle by marriage to his father's sister and freshly sporting a general's uniform, a new kingpin?

Who really knows? Among so-called experts on hermit Korea, "Quot homines, tot sententiae," as the ancient Romans said, meaning there are as many opinions as there are people, mostly based — or baseless — on slivers of facts spiced with the slimmest of rumors. I would rather not add to an empty debate. But I do lament the failure of diplomacy, international relations and imagination by all of the major players that have brought the world to this dangerous place.

The extreme poverty of North Korea makes any solution more difficult. When I began the Asia and Pacific Annual Review in 1979, our expert writers thought that North Korea, blessed with the better resources of coal and minerals when the peninsula was split, had a stronger economy than the South. Not any more: South Korea is a $1.5 trillion economy, with per capita income of $30,000, in 44th position in world rankings; North Korea is a $40 billion economy with per capita income of $1,800, 194th in the world.

Bare statistics do not tell the misery of the North Koreans under the Kim dynasty, where people were forced to eat grass or starve and had their radios fixed to the government propaganda channel. Meanwhile, the leaders spent billions on a nuclear arsenal and Kim Jong Il drank Hennessy cognac and collected a library of 20,000 DVDs. It is a measure of Kim's successful secretiveness that the cognac salesmen told no tales even as he was their best customer. Kim's final journey to the mausoleum was in a Lincoln Continental, the "car of presidents" and the epitome of U.S. gas-guzzling wastefulness.

The Kims carried economic mismanagement and totalitarianism to new depths. Their success makes the chances of economic or political reform remote unless it comes from deep within North Korea, which means from inside the ruling clique, the Kim family or their military supporters. By the standards of North Korea, China is positively fun-loving and tolerant of dissent.

In North Korea's wretched circumstances, Kim Jong Il played brilliantly, albeit with no sense of responsibility except to his own regime. He exposed the rest of the world as clueless how to cope. Given concessions on economic assistance or nuclear negotiations, Kim devoured them greedily and gave nothing back; faced with sanctions, he upped the ante and made money by proliferating nuclear technology.

Anyone in the West should be worried about the lack of understanding of North Korea in Washington. Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables quoted a Chinese official as saying that North Korea "now had little value to China as a buffer state," something that is far from reality. Zhou Yongkang, the politburo member in charge of security, was on the podium when Kim Jong Il announced his son Jong Un as his successor.

On America's Republican right there is a gung-ho ignorance about the rest of the world. Even Mitt Romney, who could probably point in the right direction for North Korea's place on a map, expressed the hope that Kim's death "represents an opportunity for America to work with our friends to turn North Korea off the treacherous course it is on." What does he expect — an invasion or a CIA-inspired coup? Who are the friends on whom his hopes rest?

Other possible sources of diplomatic pressure or imaginative suggestions have had little to contribute. The European Union, which is not a member of the six-party talks focusing on North Korea's nuclear program, seems determined to prove that Europe does not matter to the rest of the world. Within the six-party group, Russia is distracted by domestic demonstrations and seems determined to be suspicious of anything that the U.S. does. Japan, sadly, has little understanding of what a foreign policy initiative might look like. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's suggestion visiting Beijing that China should share information about North Korea was among Japan's more positive contributions.

China offers a real problem, which the deterioration in its relations with the U.S. has exacerbated. Leading Chinese commentators have accused Washington of starting a new "Cold War." This standoff, with attendant risks of military buildup and mutual general suspicions, is a growing threat to world peace. It should be a matter of worry to all humanity that neither the U.S. nor China understands that this fragile planet cannot withstand great power politics as usual. We need shared solutions and shared pain to immense problems.

On North Korea specifically, Beijing could help bring Pyongyang in from the cold, which means more than turning North Korea into a province of China. So far Beijing has pursued a narrow short-term policy, cozying up to the Kims, sustaining them through investment, aid and trade, both legal and illegal. China is right to be scared. Implosion of North Korea would be bad, with refugees pouring to China and South Korea; explosion would be worse, with the dreadful prospects of a chain reaction involving the U.S., China determined to stop U.S. intervention, South Korea with all its fraternal angst, and Japan fearful of a mess on its doorstep, all this with nuclear weapons on the loose.

One basic problem is that all major players, including China, South Korea and Japan, prefer the present appalling situation to what might follow. Let the poor North Korean people suffer. China and Japan fear the potential might of a united Korea (still playing the old game of power politics), while Seoul, remembering the unification of Germany fears the huge costs of putting the Koreas together. Trying to do it over Kim Jong Un's body would raise the bill unacceptably.

But the present is not sustainable. The Kim regime is not sustainable, where a small clique grinds the face of the poor masses. Rebellion of the masses is unthinkable, but the collapse of the country would be worse. It is time for imaginative and cooperative policies to bring Kim Jong Un in from the cold to become a real hero of the Korean people. But who is going to start the positive talking?

Kevin Rafferty was founder and editor of the Asia and Pacific Annual Review from 1979-1993.

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