Back to its old tricks againNorth Korea fights with the whole world. China’s President Xi Jinping recent remarks - “The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is an inevitable trend” - pointedly summarizes the North’s unbridgeable distance with the world, including its own best ally.
On June 19, leaders of the Group of Eight denounced North Korea at a summit in Northern Ireland. They unanimously urged the North to give up its nuclear arms in what amounted to a collective warning from eight powerful countries. That was a clear reminder of the harsh reality the recalcitrant nation faces today.
North Korea’s disharmony with the world and isolation from the international community grew deeper, and that is confirmed with the latest developments in Myanmar. In November 2008, leaders of North Korea and Myanmar met in Pyongyang and reaffirmed their military cooperation. The memorandum of understanding was signed by chief of the general staff of the North Korean People’s Army Kim Kyok-sik and his counterpart from Myanmar, General Thura Shwe Mann. It raised suspicions of nuclear and missile connections between the two countries.
In 2011, the junta in Myanmar gave up its power and Shwe Mann retired from the military. He is currently serving as the speaker of the lower house of the Myanmar legislature. He visited Seoul in April and paid a visit to the Blue House. President Park Geun-hye welcomed him by greeting him in the Burmese language.
Myanmar has been shaken by democratization and development and now South Korea’s Saemaul Movement is its role model. The country cut off its military exchanges with North Korea, and the North tasted betrayal.
The Kim Jong-un regime is undergoing the painful hardships of isolation, and the North is probably thinking about its past. In the early and mid-1990s, North Korea faced a severe - and multifaceted - crisis. The Soviet Union was dissolved, while South Korea was establishing diplomatic relations with China. The communist North’s founding father Kim Il Sung died, while the country had to endure a deadly famine it now refers to as the “Arduous March.” The North’s method of survival was devilish, but proved very effective.
It negotiated with the United States, while maintaining China’s support through the six-party talks. It persuaded the South Korean government to provide assistance while oppressing its citizens. The Kim Jong-il regime fought hard to overcome an almost insurmountable crisis. The reclusive regime also managed to succeed in its ambitious nuclear weapons development. In the end, North Korea won the reputation of being invincible in a negotiation.
That reputation, however, is in the past. The situation has changed fundamentally as new players emerged affecting the order on the Korean Peninsula. The Barack Obama administration has changed its position and refuses to sit down with Pyongyang merely for the sake of talking. It has a determination to never be played by North Korea again: Talks with the North are a nightmare for America.
In the meantime, China emerged as a manager of the global order. Xi’s “new type of great power relationship” is a grand ambition. It is China’s proclamation that Beijing and Washington should run the world together. The stability of the Korean Peninsula is the prerequisite for his grand vision. But North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is a factor that disturbs the vision because it will inevitably fuel Japan’s desire to arm itself with nuclear weapons, while leading to cementing an alliance between Seoul and Washington. Therefore, it is inevitable for Beijing to redefine its relationship with Pyongyang.
China’s approach to the Kim Jong-un regime has already changed. The upcoming summit between Park and Xi on June 27 will shock the young North Korean leader. It will undoubtedly create a strong impact, similar to that of the establishment of Seoul-Beijing diplomatic ties 21 years ago.
South Korea has changed, too. Inter-Korean talks were canceled this month after the two sides failed to agree on the ranks of their chief negotiators. North Korea’s negotiation gambits are composed of ambush, deception, deviation from rules, and unpredictability. They were the driving force behind its invincible negotiation reputation.
The move to send a lower-ranking chief negotiator was the beginning of deviation from the rules. The North attempts to have the upper hand this way. President Park Geun-hye’s refusal to play along, however, stopped its strategy from working. North Korea also failed to create an internal conflict in the South. The South Korean people support Park’s foreign affairs and North Korea policies.
North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan has finally appeared on the scene. His smirking face means a long, tiring diplomatic battle ahead. As the North’s ultimate goal is to be recognized as a nuclear power, it will repeat its past strategies.
North Korea’s history of negotiations had various successes and defeats. In September 1996, the infiltration of a North Korean submarine to Gangneung, South Korea, was detected. The North argued that its submarine drifted after a malfunction during an exercise.
South Korean President Kim Young-sam made a very simple conclusion to the complicated situation and it was his victory. He demanded Pyongyang admit its armed provocation, apologize and promise not to repeat it. While America showed a moderate response, North Korea tried to trick the international community. But President Kim’s simplicity and consistency eventually worked and at the end of that year, the North expressed its “deep regret.” It was the first public admission and apology by the North.
In October 2007, President Roh Moo-hyun visited Pyongyang for a summit with Kim Jong-il. Kim proposed Roh to extend his stay in a surprise move to have the upper hand in the summit. “I have the power to make a big decision, but I don’t have the power to make small decisions,” Roh told Kim, rejecting the proposal. The remark is outstanding. The Roh administration was often excessively conciliatory toward the North. But Roh’s remark redefined the flow of the summit.
A negotiation is about managing words. Simple and concise words are capable of overwhelming intentional confusion. The power to resolve the North’s nuclear crisis comes from experiences and memories. We must find lessons from past negotiations with the North and arm ourselves with that know-how.
The North’s nuclear armament is our problem, not America’s or China’s. The South Koreans of this generation must resolve it and put an end to the North’s “invincible” diplomacy.
* The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon