[Viewpoint] China looms in inter-Korean politics

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[Viewpoint] China looms in inter-Korean politics

When I wrote a column for the Jan. 19 issue of the JoongAng Ilbo, I pointed out that the possibility of North Korea taking hard-line action as it reveals its succession structure was very high.

As succession looms, the heir needs to prove himself by displaying leadership and decisiveness, and those in power are likely to pursue extreme moves in order to bring him to public attention. In the past, when Pyongyang has readied for succession, the inter-Korean relationship has suffered friction as the successor showed off his ambition and those with vested interests displayed excessive loyalty.

Today, the economic crisis is another factor that could lead North Korea to take extreme action. North Korea is going through its worst economic downturn since 2000. Trade between North Korea and China, which makes up the greater part of North Korea’s overseas business, has decreased by 5 percent for the first time since 2000. The income from exporting weapons has shrunk by more than 90 percent due to tightened control on weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, income from inter-Korean trade and assistance from the international community has decreased drastically. Meanwhile, the North’s demands for foreign currency and financing are growing constantly.

The heir needs to provide more political and material benefit to the vested interests. Moreover, he needs to keep the people from starvation.

Since August 2009, Pyongyang has pursued an appeasement policy toward the South, proposing summit meetings in the hopes of receiving foreign currency from its neighbor. However, Seoul’s response has been lukewarm. No progress has been made in the talks to resume the Mount Kumgang tourism, which is the main source of income.

Pyongyang might have finally determined that it cannot expect any economic assistance from the Lee Myungbak administration, and decided to make a breakthrough in its relations with China. That might explain Pyongyang’s confiscation of South Korean assets in Mount Kumgang. At the same time that Pyongyang was waiting for the South to change its attitude while on the other, it negotiated with a Chinese regional government or tour company. Upon getting approval from China, Pyongyang appears to have discarded its contracts for Mount Kumgang tourism with the South Korean government and Hyundai Asan.

The latest Chinese capital investment in North Korea has two significant features. The first is that the North Korean National Defense Commission is directly involved, and the second is that Pyongyang is offering its natural resources as collateral for investments. These moves might be intended to provoke Seoul, which is concerned that the North Korean economy might fall under China’s control, but it also shows that North Korea’s economic crisis is very urgent and desperate, and the course of succession is not so smooth. When North Korea is struggling so hard to establish a succession structure — its biggest political task — it is only natural that its leaders’ antagonism to the South is growing deeper.

Their paranoia is likely to grow as anti-North political acts, such as the distribution of leaflets, continue in South Korea. As a result, Pyongyang gave China the interests that previously had been offered to the South. In terms of security and defense, the North attempted to realize various military plans to make up for its crushing defeat in the Battle of Daecheong in November 2009. If North Korea is responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan, the above scenario makes sense.

In the same context, North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a memorandum on April 9 that stated that Pyongyang would “augment and modernize nuclear weapons” as an effort to reinforce its nuclear weapons deterrence capacity.

What Pyongyang considers the “most powerful weapon” might not be a nuclear weapon or a missile. It might be the ardent wish of South Korea to never see war on the Korean Peninsula again. As long as Pyongyang perceives this wish as the most powerful weapon with which to destroy South Korea, and its overwhelming economic, social and cultural dominance, North Korea’s provocation will continue.

Letting slip its familiar mask of the “one people,” North Korea is dashing toward China’s window for economic cooperation. If the cooperation with China is successful, no matter how much economic interest it concedes, Pyongyang is likely to continue to neglect the South and take a hard-line attitude.

Therefore, Seoul’s principle task is to strengthen diplomacy with China and block Pyongyang’s strategic efforts. If China takes advantage of Pyongyang’s approach as a chance to expand its interests, it will surely become yet another serious challenge for Seoul’s North Korea policy.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is the director of the Center for International Development Cooperation at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy.

By Cho Myung-chul
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