Monday, September 20, 2010

Doubts about "How North Korea was lost - to China"

Add/Update: For clarity. Sept. 20th, '10

There's an interesting article here that looks at how Seoul and Washington "lost" North Korea;  I don't find it very agreeable

Aiden Foster-Carter has written an long piece in the Asia Times on North Korea’s geopolitics.  It is a fairly long piece, so here is the punch line:
So there’s our winner. Its rivals’ missteps have helped, but Beijing has long played a skillful, patient game. Like Moscow, it irked the North by recognizing South Korea (in 1992), but unlike the abrupt Russians it worked hard to soothe sensitivities.
Eighteen years on, guess which power is the top trade partner of both Koreas? Now, there’s subtle hegemony for you. No prizes either for guessing who’s snapping up North Korea’s mines, and beginning the lengthy, costly process of modernizing its decrepit infrastructure.
Face it: who else has the motive, or the means? As all agree, China’s overriding worry about North Korea is not Kim’s nukes but fear of collapse, and the chaos this could cause on its own borders. Beijing’s consistent strategy is not to paint Kim into a corner, no matter what.
Knowing that, how did policymakers in Seoul or Washington delude themselves that China would hurry to join a chorus of condemnation over the Cheonan? No way. Beijing squirmed a bit, but the game was worth the candle. Let Washington and Seoul huff and puff. All that achieved was to push an ever-more isolated North Korea further into China’s orbit and influence.
Nothing is certain, especially about North Korea where forecasts (this writer’s not least) have a habit of turning out wrong. I expected North Korea to collapse long ago: guilty as charged, m’lud. I understimated this tough regime’s staying power, or the horrors it would impose on its people – including famine – to cling to power while refusing to see sense.
But this can’t go on forever. The old game of militant mendicancy is finally up. Kim Jong-il’s frail health, a delicate succession, and an empty treasury – United Nations sanctions have hit arms exports, and crime doesn’t pay like it used to – make defying the entire world just too risky.
North Korea needs a sugar daddy. There is only one candidate left standing, and one who fits the bill perfectly. It may not be a marriage made in heaven, mind you. Pyongyang will keep squawking, and even try the old game of playing off its interlocutors – as in its latest thaw with Seoul.
But at the end of the day Beijing is making an offer no one else can match, and which North Korea can’t refuse. It goes roughly like this: Okay, we’ll bail you out, we’ll guarantee your security, we’ll even stomach your weird monarchical tendencies – unless the kid turns out to be a complete klutz, in which case you know what to do. Jang Song-taek (brother-in-law to Kim Jong-il) knows the score.
You can count on us too not to shame you by spelling all this out and giving the game away. But yes, we do need something in return. Two things. First: markets. For goodness sake just leave them alone, nay let ‘em rip – as we’ve been telling you to, ever since Deng Xiaoping.
Look where we are now, and where you are. We’ll do the heavy lifting of investment, so you have functioning factories and railways again. But you have to let it happen. No going back.
Second: no more trouble. We know it may take time for you to give up your footling pesky nukes. But we need an absolute guarantee of no more tests, or else. No other provocations, either. Our People’s Liberation Army will teach your Korean People’s Army how to adapt and how to make money. The new North Korea will be a good global citizen, trading like we do. The returns are good. It beats mugging any day.
And guess what? You’ll love it, all of you. You’ll prosper. No more worries. Your people will eat; your elite will make money. What’s not to like? Just stop all that shouting and marching; what a relief, eh? The rest of the cult can stay, if you must. All hail the young general Kim Jong-eun, finally fulfilling grandpa’s dream of peace and prosperity for all! (With a bit of help from his friends, but we’re modest.) You’ll love him. You really will.
This seems to me a plausible scenario for North Korea’s future. In fact, I struggle to imagine any other. Korean reunification? Maybe in the very long run – but right now, who wants it?
Not the North, whose elite know the fate of their East German counterparts after unification. Can we really expect them to put their faith in the tender mercies of Lee Myung-bak? Even under Kim Dae-jung or Roh Moo-hyun it would have been tricky. What place would there be for most of them, frankly, in a reunified peninsula? Not a privileged one, that’s for sure.
Ordinary North Koreans, too, have learned, from the trickle who have made it to Seoul, that South Korea is no land of milk and honey. True, they’d like a life, and to eat. But China, or a North Korea open to and learning from China, might look a better bet on that score.
Nor is the South enthusiastic, despite all the rhetoric. It would be embarrassing and galling to see the North become a Chinese satellite – yet perhaps also a huge relief. Let Beijing bear the brunt, the burden, and the costs of transforming the madhouse they have long sustained.
Further down the line, blood could prove thicker. By 2040 or so, a by then semi-transformed North Korea may tire of great Han chauvinism, slough off the Chinese yoke, and embrace the cousins south of the demilitarized zone (which would long ago have become more permeable). They’d be easier to absorb, too, now smoothed by a few decades of Chinese-style modernity.
Speculative, to be sure. But what other scenarios are there? And though from one viewpoint China has edged out rival powers as argued above, presumably to their chagrin, might some of them in truth be quietly relieved to be spared the responsibility?
Let China take it on and deliver a new-style North Korea, vibrant and fit for a new century. It could last a long time, and spare the region and world much headache and risk. Does anyone have an alternative?
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean affairs. A regular visitor to the peninsula, he has followed North Korea for over 40 years.
In its entirety, Aidan Foster-Carter writes:
Knowing that, how did policymakers in Seoul or Washington delude themselves that China would hurry to join a chorus of condemnation over the Cheonan? No way. Beijing squirmed a bit, but the game was worth the candle. Let Washington and Seoul huff and puff. All that achieved was to push an ever-more isolated North Korea further into China's orbit and influence.
I mean just as much as China likes to make deals with military juntas -- primarily North Korea and Burma,
"But at the end of the day Beijing is making an offer no one else can match, and which North Korea can't refuse."
I think Washington and Seoul expected, well, more from China. 

But, what I'd like to ask is why is China settling on North Korea when the country should be eying South Korea? In the past few months, China has basically pushed Vietnam, South Korea, and, now, Japan to the arms of, well, the United States. 

It's not as if China  has just won a strategic competition against other countries for the great prize that is North Korea. Rather -- and I think many (e.g. Scott Snyder) have argued that this is how North Koreans see it as well. It is not the case of a calculating China defeating the U.S. and the other countries in some grand chess game for influence in North Korea, but rather just a simple case of China looking to gratify its own immediate desire -- "Chinese stability."

Consider that as a result of the Cheonan fiasco -- from none other than a Sinocentric point of view --  the huge cost for China has been South Korea. I would think the ultimate end game for China  -- again from a Sinocentric point of view -- is to dominate East Asia, which includes kicking out or splintering the U.S.-Japan and U.S-ROK alliances and unifying with Taiwan. The end game for China is not about paying for North Korean food, roads, and ports and extracting natural resources that North Korea may have. The real gold is elsewhere.

I'd bet that North Korea surely sees this too and would love at any cost to get the United States to guarantee the security of the country any day over the Chinese. In the meantime, China will continue to feed North Korea, build North Korean roads and ports, and bring the northern half of the peninsula out of the dark ages all of which North Korea will not be grateful for. After all, China is doing this for self-serving reasons.


This is the logic behind why despite China's growing economic clout over the Korean peninsula  -- China is also Japan's number one trade partner, this has not translated over into political clout.  I  think that this type of reasoning underlying the original article could come to only feed the doubt of those that think South Korea and the United States have become too confrontational with North Korea and think that perhaps reverting back to some form of the now bankrupt Sunshine Policy  may not be that bad of an idea.

Andrew Lankov:
A senior South Korean diplomat described this problem in a private conversation by a good allegory: "China does not have leverage when it comes to dealing with the North. What China has is a hammer."
I would also recommend Scott Snyder's China's Rise and the Two Koreas: Politics, Economics, Security here.

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