October 8, 2014
In a remarkable demonstration that may presage the end of one of the world’s most deeply embedded conflicts, three of North Korea’s most senior leaders have made a surprise visit to the South.
The excuse for the unprecedented trip across the heavily-armed border that has divided the peninsular since the Second World War was to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games, held at the city of Incheon west of the South’s capital Seoul. But the three also met senior South Korean officials and agreed that talks should be held to improve relations between the two sides of the divided nation.
The lightning-strike diplomacy by the three has started a brush fire of confusion and speculation in Asia because it raises questions about North Korea’s leader, the young and erratic Kim Jong-un, and whether he is still in charge.
Kim has not been seen in public since September 3, and he has missed several important public occasions where his presence would be expected. When last seen, Kim was limping badly and one explanation is that he is recovering from an accident or illness.
A rival theory is that Kim, the third member of his family to rule the hermit Marxist kingdom since 1945, has been deposed by the top figures in the military and the ruling Workers’ Party. If so, the plotters are keeping Kim’s ouster a secret from North Korea’s people. A brief news report in the North about the visit to the Incheon games said: “With his great love and compassion, Marshal Kim Jong-un personally organized their dispatch, and provided them with a special plane.”
In the scheme of things, however, the status of basketball player Dennis Rodman’s “best friend” Kim is far less significant than the fact that three of Pyongyang’s top powerbrokers got on a plane to meet officials in the South.
The most important of the three is Hwang Pyong-so, who if Kim has been sidelined is North Korea’s leader. Hwang is the political director of the Korean People’s Army and the vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission, the top body in the executive branch of the administration.
The second member of the North Korean troika is Choe Ryong-hae, who until recently held the posts now occupied by Hwang. Choe was a life-long friend of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” who died at the end of 2011 and was succeeded by his youngest son Kim Jong-un.
The third member of the group is the only one who is known to have visited South Korea before. He is Kim Yang-gon, who as head of the United Front Department of the Workers’ Party has responsibility for managing relations with the South.
Quite apart from the status of the trio, the fact that they travelled to South Korea suggests that after over six decades of hostility – including the devastating 1950-53 civil war – Pyongyang is serious about trying to improve relations with the South. There have been summits between the two Koreas in 2000 and 2007, but on both occasions the North insisted they be held in its capital, Pyongyang. That the three leaders travelled to the South is a highly symbolic concession.
But there are no guarantees that even with good will on both sides that the divisions separating them can be bridged. The possibility of a reunification of the two Koreas, separated by a swift territorial grab by the Soviet Union’s military in the dying days of the Second World War, is an even more distant prospect. Indeed, North and South Korea are still technically at war as the civil conflict ended only with a cease-fire in 1953. There was a reminder on Tuesday of the tinderbox nature of the military stand-off between the two when warships exchanged warning shots after a North Korean ship allegedly crossed the maritime border into the South’s waters.
That incident will not derail the proposed talks, which it has been left to the Seoul government of President Park Geun-hye to arrange. Both sides see benefits in easing relations, which have been largely frozen since North Korea conducted nuclear weapons tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
The North’s economy is in a shambles, and Pyongyang has for over a decade depended on the generosity of China for its survival, as well as its own murky trade in weapons, drugs and counterfeit currencies. But Beijing is far less enthusiastic about propping up this troublesome child than in the past. Tens of thousands of North Korean refugees are living rickety lives in China, and Beijing sees great benefits in developing relations with Seoul. China’s trade with South Korea is now an important part of both economies, and Beijing is also working to pry Seoul loose from its military alliances with the United States and especially Japan.
It is unclear what part, if any, Beijing played in the visit of the three northern leaders to Incheon. But for Seoul the prospect of better relations with Pyongyang carries several opportunities. One is the possibility of arranging reunions between families separated by the civil war. This is a hot-button political issue in the South.
Another is the prospect of an expansion of the rudimentary industrial investments southern companies have made in the North. North Korea offers one of the few remaining pools of cheap labour in East Asia.
However, there are very serious divisions between Seoul and Pyongyang that could easily derail the entire project.
Pyongyang will undoubtedly demand that South Korea stop holding annual joint military exercises with the U.S., something Seoul will not concede. The North Koreans will also probably demand that Seoul back out of its agreement to host a United Nations office tasked with monitoring human rights abuses in the North.
President Park’s government does not have a list of non-negotiable demands, and will probably even shy away from preconditions around the North’s nuclear weapons program. But it will be impossible to avoid for long the nuclear weapons problem or, indeed, the North’s constant threat to the security of the South with conventional weapons.
The hope will be that these issues can be kept on the sidelines until enough progress has been made on less divisive issues to have sown a bed of mutual confidence.
Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014
Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has traveled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
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