While we’re on the subject of North Korea I want to introduce the Economist's recent article to the debate. To save yourself the time reading it the bottom line is that following the Cheonan incident relations between North and South Korea worsened considerably, but the South Koreans are hinting a return to the “sunshine policy” of the old days by sending $8.5 million of aid north. I catch myself wondering what the hell is going on. And then I remember that this back-and-forth is what normal is.
In the last six months the North Koreans have sunk a South Korean ship; South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has proposed a “unification tax” to cover the expected astronomical costs of unifying the country once North Korea collapses (in the presumed near-future); North Korea’s Number Two told a gathering of the country’s military elite that the peninsula was on the ‘brink of war’ (since when has it not been?); President Myung-bak hinted at hopes to expand commercial ties with North Korea through the construction of a second industrial factory park; and last Wednesday the North proposed the first military talks in two years, the South pushed the date back to September 30th from the North’s suggestion of the 24th.
In August flash flooding displaced tens of thousands of people along the North Korea/China border. It is strange how floods and other similar disasters bring out the humanitarian in us all, while we get numb to and ignore after a bit “normal” day-to-day suffering. These floods are the backdrop to Seoul’s aid offer which Pyongyang has yet to respond to. The Christian Science Monitor seems to think that North Korea will accept the South’s offer since aid from China has not materialized.
Let’s assume that North Korea will indeed take South Korea’s offer of aid, which would then return that part of the status quo to its previous position (South Korean had frozen all government funds to the North in mid-May after the Cheonan kerfuffle). The Economist notes that there are more than just humanitarian concerns wrapped up in the idea of aid. Political and diplomatic considerations are also in play. Apparently Mr. Lee’s previously toughening stance toward the North has been weakened some by his party’s poor showing in the local elections in June. South Koreans may hate Kim Jung-Il, but aren’t exactly calling for war and “have no appetite for punishing” their northern kin.
And what is the role of China? Kim Jung-Il’s recent trip to China with his son resulted in rumors of his son’s rise to future Dearest Leader but not a word on aid to the flooded border area. The Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper cites a defector from the north as having said that the flood victims were expecting good news to come of Kim Jung-Il’s China trip. Upon his return the North Korean media (read: mouthpiece of the government) made no mention – indicating that whatever aid China offered fell way short of expectation. The Economist is interpreting China’s reluctance on aid as a coercive political maneuver, though they use kinder words. By remaining reluctant on aiding the North Koreans the Chinese are pushing Pyongyang toward the south for assistance. Big Brother is pushing little stepbrother to play nice(er) in order to be rewarded.
President Jimmy Carter (one of your options for rescue should you decide to visit North Korea and be asked not-so-nicely to stay for a while) recently published an op-ed in the New York Times. Carter gets the vibe from North Korea that they want to get back to the pre-March atmosphere and restart negotiations and discussions of denuclearization. I question this conclusion, especially because the North Korean leadership (not Mr. Kim, he was convieniently in China at the time) said that the six-party talks were like being “sentenced to death but not yet executed.” Not exactly a rousing endorsement of beginning the process anew.
If anything the status quo will be returned. In a way North Korea benefits from being seen as unpredictable. South Korea will continue to offer the north aid along with chastisements, the North Koreans will continue to play along and then act out just to prove they can and then play along some more. China will sit back and watch, only getting involved of the situation threatens to spill over. Despite talk of a “unification tax” South Korea would be unwise to hope for the North’s collapse anytime soon. Such an event would destabilize the region and could be a bigger threat to South Korea than Dearest Leader has ever been, even when he’s playing with his nuclear toys.
I guess all I have now is a question for the rest of you... do you think this whole North/South Korea situation will ever change in our lifetimes? Certainly something will happen when Kim Jung-Il bites the dust but there's no telling when that will happen (or if he's already a cyborg zombie). So, status quo forever?