Winds of changeThe winds in Northeast Asia are shifting rapidly. Yesterday, North Korea’s ailing leader Kim Jong-il made a surprise visit to China, while former U.S. President Jimmy Carter flew into Pyongyang. And Wu Dawei, China’s special representative for affairs on the Korean Peninsula, is in Seoul after meeting with his counterparts in Pyongyang, where he discussed the resumption of the six-party talks for the denuclearization of North Korea.
This series of meaningful diplomatic events has taken place almost simultaneously, involving some of the key players in the nuclear issue. During a summit meeting in early May, Pyongyang and Beijing agreed to have dialogue on a regular basis to discuss significant issues such as North Korea’s internal security, bilateral ties and other international and regional issues.
Kim’s sudden visit to China means that some grave issue has likely arisen, as the reclusive leader of North Korea rarely makes such seemingly spur-of-the-moment visits.
The issue could involve power succession in the North or the worsening economic hardships the country faces due to massive flooding - or possibly both.
North Korea plans to speed up the transfer of power from Kim Jong-il to his son Kim Jong-un ahead of the Workers’ Party’s Representatives Meeting set for early September. To do that, the country must navigate through its current economic hardships.
Kim Jong-il’s trip to China can be understood as an attempt to get reassurances that the country will provide economic aid and to seek mutual cooperation to develop North Korea’s Najin Harbor and China’s three northeastern provinces.
The other reason for his visit revolves around the six-party talks. China desperately wants to resume them to both stabilize the security of the Korean Peninsula and relieve U.S. military pressure in the region. When and if the North receives aid from China, it will naturally feel pressure to join the six-party talks. North Korea might have determined that it has no other choice at this point but to address opposition by South Korea and the U.S. to its nuclear program.
Depending on the results of the meeting between the North and China, we could see a new era in the security situation on the Korean Peninsula. Our government should prepare a shrewd strategy to cope with the potential for rapid change.
If the North makes a groundbreaking proposal, our government must respond in a sophisticated manner through close consultations with the U.S., though we must not abandon our diplomatic efforts to make the North apologize for the Cheonan tragedy.