Letter from China: Hints and hopes for a possible endgame in the Koreas

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Howard W. French
Published: October 5, 2007
SHANGHAI: A certain amount of peril attaches to the statement of anything definitive about the Korean Peninsula.
The events of recent weeks, nonetheless, strongly suggest the approach of something like an endgame.
By the end of this year, much will be known about the will and intentions of the main parties to the multidimensional diplomacy aimed at ending the five-decade-old state of war that persists between the Koreas, about the possibility of disarming a nuclear power through political and economic engagement and about the Bush administration’s willingness to live and work with a regime it had included as a charter member of the Axis of Evil.
All of the recent diplomatic advances could, of course, come to naught. By Dec. 31, North Korea must give a thorough and convincing accounting of its nuclear assets, weapons included. And elements in the Bush administration which have never accommodated themselves to the idea of normalizing relations with Pyongyang must finally come to terms with this idea.
This means putting aside last-minute objections about supposed North Korean nuclear cooperation with Syria, and other leaked, murky plotlines that are sure to surface between now and the New Year.
Assuming this can happen, though, now is a good time to ask: how have things even come this far?
The answer lies in the creeping hold of realism that seems to have reached out and grasped most of the main protagonists. The apparent Korean endgame, it would seem, is built on certain other, national endgames, as well as on the important changes in countries like China that have pushed hard, if discreetly, to make things move.
In each of the main players there has been a tacit recognition that the other principal parties have real and fundamental interests, and the potential implications of this, after years of diplomatic futility, are profound.
In addition to being treated as a pariah, the North Korean regime has long been caricatured in ways that have served no useful purpose, and have certainly not helped understand the region’s complicated dynamics.
To be sure, Kim Jong Il’s government has a long history of abhorrent behavior, most especially toward its own people. For all of their cruelty and eccentricity, what Kim and his cronies are not, however, is crazy.
Like most states, this one is deeply preoccupied with its own survival. It does not take paranoia to conclude that the international order has turned harshly unfavorable toward the North Korean regime since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Seen from the vantage point of Pyongyang, Bush’s 2002 Axis of Evil speech came only as confirmation that the country’s leadership figured high on a global hit list of candidates for regime change. This, not some wacky Austin Powers-type Dr. Evil mind-set, explains much of North Korea’s behavior since.
The country expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, pushed hard to advance its weapons-making capabilities, detonated an atomic device and then, with a strengthened hand, and greatly enhanced deterrence, accepted more negotiations.
In truth, Pyongyang had tried negotiating an end to hostilities before. Madeleine Albright visited the country in the final days of the Clinton administration, and for a brief moment, it appeared that a major settlement might be within reach.
The urgency from the North Korean perspective today derives from an understanding that America’s presidential alternation often wipes out diplomatic momentum, and indeed, where the last two changes in Washington were concerned, wiped the policy slate clean toward Pyongyang altogether, requiring long, costly efforts to get going again.
Kim Jong Il, who is widely believed to have serious health concerns, and also appears to be preoccupied with engineering his own dynastic succession, likely feels that now is the best time to strike a deal that would end the state of war, win badly needed economic assistance, establish diplomatic guarantees for his regime and help ensure its survival.
If so, he is likely counting on the near lame-duck status of President Bush, and on the search for a legacy by his outgoing South Korean counterpart, Roh Moo Hyun, whose tenure has been broadly ineffectual but who now has a chance to boost his own name, as well as the prospects of his political party in upcoming elections.
Though in many ways South Korea is the weakest of all the parties, Roh has played a strong hand by resisting Washington’s hard line from the outset, leaving few other choices besides engagement. He was also astute enough not to expand Pyongyang’s options by over-promising during his summit there this week.
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