Cables reveal regional concerns about Pyongyang

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Cables reveal regional concerns about Pyongyang

U.S. State Department cables released by WikiLeaks yesterday reveal growing concerns among countries in the region that North Korea could suffer a difficult transition period following the death of Kim Jong-il, with China suggesting it might support unification under South Korea instead of protecting North Korea.

The release of the documents could prove important in the wake of the North Korean attack on a South Korean island last week and shed light on the attitudes in Pyongyang that could explain the attack.

Some analysts believe the North’s attack was caused by its frustration to engage the U.S. in direct talks. Evidence for this explanation was contained in a August 2009 cable outlining a conversation between a U.S. diplomat and a senior Mongolian official who had met Kim Yong-il, the North Korean vice foreign minister, after former U.S. President Bill Clinton had traveled to Pyongyang to seek the release of two captured U.S. journalists.

The Mongolian official, J. Sukhee, said that Kim Yong-il had welcomed the Clinton trip because he saw it as a way to establish direct contacts with Washington.

“Kim said forward motion stopped during the Bush Administration but was now able to proceed because of President Clinton’s recent involvement in a personal capacity, because President Obama is of the same party, and because former First Lady Clinton is now the Secretary of State. The North Koreans were expecting a dialogue with the United States to start soon as an extension of President Clinton’s visit,” the cable quoted Sukhee as saying.

In addition, “Kim took a ‘very hard line’ on the Six Party Talks according to Sukhee, stating that [North Korea] will never return to the talks, that the talks were dead,” according to the U.S. diplomat.

But despite North Korea’s expectations of resuming dialogue with Washington, the Obama administration has adopted a policy of “strategic patience” in refusing to negotiate with North Korea on a bilateral basis unless Pyongyang makes concessions on its nuclear weapons program.

Meanwhile, the cables show that China has been growing increasingly frustrated with North Korea’s provocative brinkmanship. China told South Korean officials that it was willing to accept the unification of the Korean Peninsula by the South, according to the leaked documents.

The disclosure came two days after China, pressed to rein in its belligerent communist neighbor, hurriedly proposed an emergency consultation among the six-party countries to calm the situation in response to last week’s North Korean attack.

The cables also reported a discussion between Chun Yung-woo, then South Korea’s vice foreign minister, and U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens early this year.

The cables showed that Chun, now senior presidential secretary for foreign affairs and national security, was told by two senior Chinese officials that they believed Korea should be reunified on the South’s initiative, a view the Chinese said was gaining ground among Chinese leaders after the North conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

China’s then-deputy foreign minister, He Yafei, was recorded in another U.S. cable of telling U.S. officials that Pyongyang’s missile test in April 2009 was the behavior of a “spoiled child” to get the attention of the U.S. Chun believed that the younger generation of leaders in the Chinese Communist Party no longer regard the North as a useful ally since they were awakening to “the new reality” that the North is losing value to China as a buffer state.

A representative of an international agency was quoted in a cable as saying that Chinese officials assessed that it could cope with an influx of 300,000 North Korean refugees in the event of serious instability, but might need to block the border using military force.

The diplomatic cables warned, however, that China would not accept the presence of U.S. troops north of the demilitarized zone that currently forms the border between the two Koreas.

A cable detailing a meeting between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and a group of North Korea experts in Seoul in February said that the experts all agreed that Kim Jong-un’s position will be threatened when his father dies and that the young son might fall victim to a coup.


By Moon Gwang-lip [joe@joongang.co.kr]

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