North Korea's isolation limits diplomatic options

January 24, 2003|By Erik Cornell

STOCKHOLM - In North Korea, history begins with Kim Il Sung, the late father of current ruler Kim Jong Il.

Apart from arbitrary flashes of heroic resistance (purportedly performed by Mr. Kim's ancestors) against colonialists and capitalists (the United States and Japan), the nation has no conscious past. The result is a people in full armor of impregnable self-assurance as the possessors of morality, truth and the future.

You can't argue with them because they don't bother to reply. They ignore your reasoning. Diplomats are therefore best advised to forget about looking for verbal compromises and instead focus negotiations on determined and concrete practical measures.

The outcome of the 1950 to 1953 Korean War consequently was regarded by North Korea as a temporary victory for the forces representing the dustbin of history and a defeat for morality and truth. South Korea's rulers are viewed as U.S. puppets not worthy of respect.

The two parties to the Korean War, according to Pyongyang, were the United States and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or North Korea, period. For half a century, a leading aim of Pyongyang's foreign policy was to be recognized by Washington as its exclusive negotiating partner.

It was, of course, denied this until the North's nuclear reactor problem of 1994 made it unavoidable to negotiate on the U.S.-led KEDO project. The project was intended to build two light-water nuclear reactors in North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang giving up processing weapons-grade plutonium. But North Korea admitted in October that it was developing nuclear weapons, in violation of the 1994 agreement.

The revival of the nuclear issue simply attests to North Korea's eager wish to renew bilateral contacts with Washington; all self-appointed, benevolent mediators are rejected as immoral.

To this perennial wish should be added the urgent need for oil. Lack of oil halts tractors in the fields and prevents the distribution of food. Hence, the 1994 agreement to receive oil in exchange for halting the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Cutting off oil deliveries could only have led to the current North Korean reaction, which is blackmail.

China is the only power able to influence North Korea because it is the only exception to North Korea's age-old problem of isolation.

For North Koreans, China is their frame of reference, the whole known world. It saved them in 1950 and now prevents the DPRK from collapsing. It must never be forgotten that China has, though grudgingly, accepted concessions on its own territory, such as Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, but twice has gone to war over the control of northern Korea, in 1894 and 1950. The Chinese now speak softly and give only hints, just as they did in 1950.

They give the North Koreans a free hand in details but have clearly drawn the line of trespass. North Korea knows the rules and plays by them.

This is likely to prevent a full-fledged conflagration in Korea since it would not be in China's interest. If and when Beijing decides to raise its voice, North Korea is unlikely to challenge clear Chinese indications that it should back down.

Pyongyang's trouble-making and the absence of a Chinese reaction may be a quiet reminder that North Korea lies within Beijing's sphere of influence and that China retains control over the area. As the local saying goes on solemn occasions, "Beijing and Pyongyang are as close as lips and teeth."

There is the likelihood that the Korean conflict will be resolved according to principles other than clear-cut Western-style agreements. For Westerners, black and white, light and dark are in opposition. In the Far East, yin and yang are seen as complementary.

Erik Cornell, president of Cornell Caspian Consulting, headed Sweden's diplomatic mission to North Korea from 1975 to 1977 and again as ambassador in 1988. He is the author of North Korea Under Communism: Report of an Envoy to Paradise (RoutledgeCurzon, 2002).

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