Monday, September 20, 2010

Polite Disagreement in the Ol' FT

What is the future of the relationship between North Korea and China?

It's an interesting question, and the reality as I see it is that not even Pyongyang and Beijing really know, so expecting anyone to come to a sensible, by which I mean correct, answer is something of a fool's errand. But it is interesting to see the way the debate plays out regardless.

One recent round of the debate has been happening on the pages of the Financial Times, spurred by an article by popular journalist and author Robert Kaplan and partner in crime Abraham Denmark.

In their article, the two pour forth a fairly believable torrent of information on the threats facing the (assessments-vary-but-probably-reasonably-soon) to be incumbent post-Kim Jong Il North Korean administration.

The article was printed before the deferral/cancellation/revelation as a counter-espionage operation to weed out spies that is/was/may still be the Chosun Workers' Party Delegates' Conference, so its attempts at prescience haven't turned out that well so far, but that was not really the point. Thankfully, the piece presents a splendid digest of itself in the concluding paragraph, so let's go there without further a-do;

North Korea is entering a pivotal period. Kim Jong Eun will either oversee the collapse of the state his grandfather created, or – improbably – a radical reform of its approach to economic management and state control. Either way, the future stability of the world’s most dynamic region – north-east Asia – is likely to be most directly threatened by the whims of the untested and unknown youth. The implications for the Korean peninsula, and the broader region, are historic.

So far, so good. Next, entering with an important interjection comes Aiden Foster-Carter, a serious yet entertaining pro-Sunshine Policy British North Korea watcher. No reason not to quote the body of his letter, it not being particularly long;

Yet (Kaplan and Denmark) underplay one key factor: the external dimension. Despite its shrill claims of juche (self-reliance), North Korea can no longer do it alone. Its people, long unfed, are finally fed up. Kim Jong Il’s latest oddly sudden trip to China was to seek urgent aid, without which the anointing of his untried son Kim Jong Eun as successor would be an even riskier manoeuvre.

Such help has a price. Beijing will demand overdue market reforms, and the Kims are in no position to resist. The old game is up. Economic and political exigencies alike mean they need a protector, to finance and guarantee what still threatens to be a perilous transition.

South Korea could have played this role, but its current government foolishly ditched the “sunshine” policy of the previous decade.

Seoul now has no influence in or on Pyongyang. Beijing has filled the vacuum. North Korea’s future, if it has one, is as a Chinese satellite.

It's not an argument between opposing forces, it's a debate about the weight of any one individual factor in the future of North Korea. It's the "whims of the untested and unknown youth" against the vacuum-filling technocrats in Beijing. Both will vie for influence, we are told, but which will be in the ascendancy?

Foster-Carter also challenges us to decide whether we feel that abandoning the Sunshine Policy was folly on the part of the South Korean government, or, as my employer would have it, a very sensible full-stop on a decade of unconstrained and unwise aid to an unreconstructed and hostile North Korean state. Certainly Foster-Carter feels it is the former, not only using "foolishly" but "ditching" as well to make his point.

But next, coming from an unlikely source, London's haven for Korean expats, not to mention a growing crop of defectors, New Malden, is Kim Joo Il. In his letter, Kim, of the newly formed European Union North Korean Residents Society strikes out against the Sunshine Policy and downplays the likelihood of North Korea becoming a satellite of China;

Firstly, (Aiden Foster-Carter) does not see the shadow from the “sunshine” policy. The policy provided thousands and thousands of cash to Kim Jong Il, which helped the collapsing regime to survive. Ordinary people who live in the shade are still suffering from the dictatorship. It is the “sunshine” policy that encouraged Kim Jong Il to carry on nuclear weapons development and make ordinary people suffer.

Second, his prediction on North Korea becoming China’s satellite comes from his ignorance of North Korean nationalism. North Koreans are very poor, but they are very hostile to foreigners, not only to the US and Japan, but also to China. The class does not matter. They all think in the same way.

Ordinary North Koreans and the ruling class are deeply humiliated by Kim Jong Il’s begging to China. Considering this strong nationalism, it is unlikely that North Korea will be China’s satellite no matter who becomes his successor.

In other words, the Sunshine Policy was itself a folly which allowed North Korea to develop nuclear weapons and play fast and loose with international proliferation agreements on, in large part, the South Korean dime.

In addition, Kim believes North Koreans are far too nationalistic to put up with becoming a Chinese satellite. In the end, with an admirable degree of bravado but a total and distressing absence of actual evidence, Kim claims that North Korea will be peacefully absorbed by South Korea.

Which leaves us where? Well, there is much to take away from all three contributions;

-Yes, the whims of the successor will presumably have a considerable influence on events and will need to be watched carefully, but if China imposes itself on the successor there may not be much he/she can do to avoid bending to their will.

-Yes, China's potential influence on North Korea is massive, but let us not forget that there are said to be limits to their interest in exercising that influence.

-No, the nigh-on xenophobically nationalistic average North Korean apparently doesn't want his country to be a Chinese satellite, but he is not in control of the country, and even if he is, he probably prefers following the Chinese model to losing control altogether, while the North Korean everyman will probably quickly come to a compelling conclusion about which side his/her bread is buttered when presented with this.

So who is right? Everybody and nobody, of course! This is fun, isn't it?!

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