[Viewpoint]Pyongyang’s game plan

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[Viewpoint]Pyongyang’s game plan

With the new United States administration led by Barack Obama ready to sail, a lot of new analysis and prospects are being made regarding Washington’s future policy toward North Korea. In contrast, not much is being said on how the North would react to the change.

We should first take note of North Korea’s First Vice Minister Kang Sok-ju, who’ll play the biggest role in the North’s foreign affairs. Kang was the top negotiator for North Korea during the first nuclear crisis back in 1994.

No doubt he’s already got a plan of his own drawn up since the U.S. election results last fall, and approved by Kim Jong-il. No details of this new plan have been disclosed but it isn’t too hard to guess that Kang, who believes the North Korean regime was “so bitterly betrayed” by the Bush administration since last August, has decided to start over with the Obama administration instead.

Kang might have decided that Pyongyang would have better chances of collecting “gifts” from the new U.S. administration.

In chess as in Go, the ancient game of strategy familiar to Koreans, Chinese or Japanese, there’s a particular movement to feel out the intention of the other player. In chess, this is done by moving some of your horses to unexpected places and seeing how the other side responds.

As a matter of fact, Kang already made that new move toward Obama. He invited Henry Kissinger to Pyongyang last October through Lee Gun, the director general for North American affairs at the North Korean Foreign Ministry who was visiting New York at the time. Or maybe he was just listening to the idea suggested by Korean-American scholars who frequent Pyongyang. Nonetheless, Kang would decide on his next steps after observing how the Obama team perceives and reacts to his invitation. He will try to determine the general direction of U.S. policy on the Korean Peninsula.

Kang has two scenarios in mind. First is to return back to the situation in October 2000 and pick up talks from there. The only difference from then is that North has already tinkered with its nuclear facility and has completed the first step of the denuclearization process. There’s a good chance that Kang would try to squeeze bigger benefits from Obama, arguing that “the situation is not quite the same.”

Separately from the six-party talks and nonproliferation, Kang may even demand that Washington exchange envoys with Pyongyang, hold a foreign minister-level meeting and through such arrangements establish diplomatic relations and obtain settlement on nukes, secure guarantees of safety for the regime, economic aid, membership in financial bodies and replacement of the Korean armistice with a peace treaty.

Pyongyang could go further, and ask for light water reactors and bilateral military talks or arms control talks as well.

Kang might also have plan B ready in case relations between Washington and Pyongyang get strained further. After all, something can always come up to sour the mood, such as human rights issues. If that happens the North would do its best to avoid United Nations Resolution 1718 by focusing fully on the six-party talks. At the table, the North may also try to put off the implementation for verification protocol or disabling the nuclear facility in Yongbyon as long as possible.

This year, Pyongyang should be closely observed from three angles. First, there’s been a change in Kim Jong-il’s power base. Kim’s power base is made up of the Workers’ Party, the military and his cabinet. Only back in 2007, the cabinet seemed to be gaining a bit more power - until last summer when Kim had a stroke and other health problems. This led Jang Song-thaek, Kim’s brother-in-law, to emerge instead and the military takeover of cabinet affairs such as the Kaeseong Industrial Complex and general inter-Korean relations. We have to keep an eye on how this hard-line stance might affect future relations with South Korea and the nuclear issue.

Second, there’s been a considerable breakdown of social order in North Korean society. An example is a small building going up by the side of a road. A local said that the one-story building cost $1,500 to build. The average worker’s salary in the North is 3,000 won - just $1 in the North’s black market. Then what is this building, worth roughly a 100-year salary of an average worker, doing here? And that’s just the point. Somebody can obviously buy and sell this kind of building in what used to be a tightly controlled regime. This example pretty much explains why the North’s leadership is so obsessed with crackdowns and social discipline.

Third, we must remind ourselves again that the Dear Leader is turning 67. Given that his father passed away at 82, Kim’s got about a decade to work things out. The North’s state-run media has been advertising that the regime will open “an era of strength and prosperity” by 2012. Regardless of how things might actually turn out, we can at least guess this much: that the North’s officials are counting on U.S. gifts after resolving the nuclear issue and an extra $10 billion compensation from Japan to be spent on economic reconstruction, all in few years’ time. Succeeding in this goal in about four or five years, Kim would be preparing the way for his heir.

It is obvious that Kim and Kang have strategies of their own for Obama and Hillary Clinton. At the same time Kim is distressed by his health, his undecided heir and the widening crack within his regime.

But there’s one thing the two are not quite aware of. Compared to Seoul and Pyongyang, time flows a lot slower in Washington. Also, just as Bush was no Clinton, Obama is no Bush. Hope they get the message.

*The writer is a former staff reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Brent Choi
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