[OUTLOOK]Weak or Not, North Has Cards to Play

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[OUTLOOK]Weak or Not, North Has Cards to Play

The recent North Korean ship trespasses in the Cheju Strait are an interesting example of Pyongyang's instinct toward confrontation and aggressiveness, even when its aims could probably be better achieved by other means.

Even though it is not really clear in this case just what the North's intentions were, their actions might be taken at face value: In a time of energy shortages and general economic misery, every little bit of fuel saved is important. But the incident was probably designed to be provocative - another reminder that Pyongyang is still there, still unpredictable and able at any time to shift the mood on the peninsula at its whim. Certainly the North's dissatisfaction with the Northern Limit Line is part of the mix, but whether the transit was the beginning of a serious campaign to unilaterally redraw the line is still open to debate.

Seoul responded with an olive branch after the first ships went through the strait, saying that an accommodation could be worked out. Despite the conciliatory words from the South, the intrusions continued and there was no sign of any stiffer response.

These incidents are interesting in the context of the U.S. administration's announcement that it will attempt to resume dialogue with North. Although the White House statement seems to assume Pyongyang will respond eagerly, Washington has laid down some markers that will likely lead to huffing and puffing from the North before the two sides actually sit down to talk. The addition of conventional forces to Washington's priority list will not go down well on the other side of the DMZ, and a U.S. official said Washington would not reward Pyongyang for bad behavior.

Time will tell whether those brave words are a serious threat, or whether such a policy will meet the same fate as the U.S. Treasury's statements that countries must live with the consequences of irresponsible fiscal policy rather than expecting IMF bailouts.

Seoul's policy toward the North has degenerated into incessant hand wringing about anything that might ruffle the North's feathers and cast any further doubts on President Kim's implementation of his sunshine policy. The Japanese, another major player in North East Asian international politics, are as inscrutable as ever, seemingly waiting for someone to step forward and tell them to whom they should write a check to settle the outstanding issues.

The Chinese, the only regional power with an obvious interest in keeping Korea divided, seems to be playing a constructive role in trying to show Pyongyang economic changes can be made without upsetting its political system. Pyongyang seems skeptical - rightfully so - both because the degree of political control in China is nowhere near the regimentation North Koreans suffer and because the Chinese example is beginning to creak. Beijing is not nearly as deft as the Singaporeans, for example, in constructing a system of political repression and economic freedom. The Russians are still groping for a way to flex their muscles and show that they are a force to be reckoned with, not just an atrophied former global actor.

This political brew seems to suggest that the North Koreans may still be in the driver's seat in controlling events on the peninsula. Their economic woes are no barrier to continuing their present policies - North Koreans have been dying of famine for thousands of years, and they know they can count on outside help in meeting at least their very basic humanitarian needs. The question of whether outside aid, which prolongs the appalling misery in the North, is truly ethical is interesting in theory, but it will never be seriously debated because of the North's terrorist threat to Seoul and the world's conscience.

The most difficult part of dealing with the North is other governments' tendency to deal with Pyongyang as if it were just another state - quirkier than most, perhaps, but basically motivated by the same instincts that drive other governments. This tendency is probably stronger in Seoul than in other capitals; the tug of blood ties is so strong that Koreans overlook the social controls that shape North Korean behavior.

The few South Koreans who have dealt with their Northern brethren over a long period of time have often felt frustrated in trying to negotiate in the same way they would negotiate with their Southerners.

The closest thing to the North Korea regime may be the Taleban in Afghanistan, and even that analogy is flawed because the Pyongyang leadership does not follow a religion - it is one. Changes to basic policies or giving up goals set by Kim Il-sung would not only endanger the regime's survival but also would be an attack on the ideology that undergirds the state. Combine that rigidity with a track record of success in a foreign policy based on a willingness to provoke armed conflict and a "nothing left to lose" economy, and you have a recipe for a continuation of the status quo. We can expect to see hopeful signs of a thaw repeatedly, followed by crashing disappointment when the North pulls back rather than making meaningful concessions.


The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by John Hoog

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