[VIEWPOINT]Looking back many decades, to 2006If the sound of a gunshot that assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo signaled the arrival of the turbulent 20th century, the one that signaled the change of historical tide in the Korean Peninsula came on July 22 from Shenyang, China.
The Chinese government made an extraordinary decision that it would recognize the North Korean defectors who snuck into the U.S. Consulate General in Shenyang and demanded political asylum as refugees, and allowed their departure to the United States. The signal heralded the opening of a new chapter of history on the Korean Peninsula, as well as the collapse of the North Korean regime under Kim Jong-il.
In that sense, July 2006 was an important watershed that marked a big change in the history of Korea. The South Korea-U.S. alliance on one hand and the North Korea-China alliance on the other had been the axes of security and order in the peninsula since the beginning of the Cold War.
As the signs of a rupture started to show between the two alliances, the security and order of the peninsula slipped into instability rapidly.
Japan’s leaning toward right-wing conservatism and its inclination to grow into a big military power fanned the revival of nationalism in Japan. It heralded the appearance of a new axis of confrontation in Northeast Asia.
The United States, with its hands and feet tied up in Iraq, was groping for a way out from the instability in Northeast Asia without taking the added burden of more military expenses. Washington chose to cooperate with China while strengthening its alliance with Japan. At such a subtle time, North Korea dared to test-fire missiles providing decisive momentum to China, as a stakeholder in the changes on the peninsula, to jump on the same boat with the United States.
The signs of cooperation between the United States and China came in various ways, suggesting changes in China’s policy toward North Korea. The Chinese government, at the request of the United States, froze North Korean accounts at the Macau branch of the Bank of China, a commercial bank the Chinese government had invested in, after freezing North Korean accounts at Banco Delta Asia, a Chinese bank in Macau.
China voted for the UN Security Council resolution that condemned North Korea’s firing of missiles. China also supported the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism announced at the G-8 summit at St. Petersburg in July 2006 as a joint initiative of Russia and the United States. China made it clear that the country would oppose the survival tactics of Kim Jong-il, which were to use nuclear weapons.
Between the United States and China a discussion on the political regime after the collapse of Kim Jong-il’s rule had already started before the North’s firing of the missiles. The Chinese vice foreign minister, Dai Bingguo, and the U.S. deputy secretary of state, Robert Zoellick, met in August 2005 and discussed what would happen after the collapse of the Kim Jong-il regime.
As a result of those talks between Washington and Beijing, Chris-topher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, made a statement, at a hearing of the Military and International Affairs Committee of the Senate held right after the North’s firing of the missiles, that “the United States has no intention to pursue strategic interests following the political change that will take place in North Korea.”
Allowing the North Korean defectors to claim refugee status provided decisive momentum for accelerating the collapse of the Kim Jong-il regime. In the past, the Chinese government had sent North Korean defectors who sought asylum ― after sneaking into a foreign mission in China ― to that country only via a third country.
But the Chinese government’s recognition of refugee status stipulated in international law for the three North Korean refugees who infiltrated the U.S. Consulate General in Shenyang, and its decision to allow their direct travel to the United States, led to an exodus of North Korean residents seeking to escape the political system under which they suffered so much. Their life in the “workers’ paradise” was a hell for them.
As a small hole in a dike leads to the demolition of the whole embankment, the North Korean system under the Kim Jong-il regime that looked so strong and steady started to be shaken from its foundation. When the exodus of North Korean residents went into full swing after the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the North Korean system collapsed very rapidly.
At a critical turning point in history, the leadership of both South and North Korea committed the mistake of failing to read small signs that changed the flow of history. The missiles that North Korea fired, despite opposition from the international community, became boomerangs that destroyed Kim Jong-il’s system itself. The South Korean government lost a good chance to change the fate of the Korean Peninsula when it was was surrounded by strong powers in its neighborhood, because it failed to judge the international situation, instead indulging in emotional nationalism that gave priority to “independence.”
The 21st century history of the Korean Peninsula reminds us how important the leader’s insight into the global situation and strategic vision was and is.
* The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok