The very existence of the meeting of North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Kim Kye Gwan, and U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies, who held Pyongyang-Washington consultations in Beijing as the heads of their countries’ respective delegations, signals a definite shift on the path to a settlement of the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula. The result of the meeting is that the North Korean leadership has agreed to introduce a moratorium on nuclear testing, long-range missile launches and uranium enrichment activity at its facility in Yonben and, also, to allow the International Atomic Energy Association access in order to verify the moratorium on enrichment, so long as there is “productive dialogue” between North Korea and the United States.
Pyongyang agreed to the decision in exchange for 240,000 tons of food aid from the United States. The U.S., according to the South Korean newspaper The Korea Herald, also announced that North Korea’s nuclear sites must be under the control of the IAEA and, finally, must be taken out of operation. In reply, the North Korean side proposed a “second variation” after declaring that it would be difficult to stop the program due to security reasons and the high costs of renewing the sites’ activities.
After this step, the chance appeared to break the standstill on the North Korean question and to guide the North Korean leadership into a new phase of six-sided negotiations. After all, Pyongyang has agreed to two of the three basic initial conditions: a renunciation of nuclear weapons development, respect for human rights and permission for IAEA inspectors to return to the country. But continuing to search for opportunities to lessen tensions on the Korean peninsula should not be put off.
If such a renewal really has a chance, it will only be possible to realize it in full after April 2012, when celebrations of the centennial of Kim Il Sung’s birth, the founder of North Korea, come to an end. Until that time, the entire leadership of North Korea will be occupied with preparations for the date and with its actual celebration.
Meanwhile, the U.S. cannot realize the program of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula on its own, and that means that the path to agreement lies in the creation of regional security mechanisms and economic integration. The issue of Pyongyang’s renunciation of its nuclear program cannot be solved in a few phases of negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea.
Beijing plays an important role here. China’s position with regard to North Korea is based on several very important factors. First of all, in the event of a destabilization in North Korea, millions of North Korean refugees would immediately pour into China, and that would place a tremendous burden on the Chinese infrastructure.
Secondly, the Chinese leadership has no interest in the emergence of a re-united Korean state on the peninsula, in as much as it would radically alter the geopolitical situation in the region. China now has a destitute and barely predictable, but communist state, on its border, and this state is politically and economically dependent on Beijing. China would clearly lose in the case of an emergence of a unified, democratic and capitalist Korea oriented towards the United States.
Hypothetically, of course, the People's Republic of China might consider the possibility of overthrowing the current North Korean regime and establishing a puppet regime that would be most loyal to Beijing’s interests. One can even assume that South Korea and the U.S. might approve of such actions. The only problem that remains is the fact that, in this scenario, China would have to take on the role of a country giving long-term support to North Korea.
North Korea’s economy is so neglected that to become Pyongyang’s patron would require of much time and many resources from Beijing. China will have to feed, clothe and supply fuel oil and building materials to the North Korean population. Obviously, the Chinese are perfectly free to begin pulling the North Koreans into the early stages of rehabilitation, but the constant financing of such a project could prove impossible to maintain.
North Korea is now entering a very complicated political period. On the one hand, the change of leadership offers opportunities for transformation, on the other, the Kim dynasty continues to ruin North Korea by allotting considerable sums to the military and the party elite while most citizens throughout the country are starving.
In the first months of Kim Jong Un’s ascent to power, one might ponder the foreign policy steps that will be taken by the new state leader and whether the internal politics in North Korea, itself, will be corrected. But one can hardly expect any unexpected decisions from Kim. Observing ideological purity and the necessity of gaining the trust and support not only of the army, but also of elite political factions, will keep him from taking any drastic steps.
Even if Kim doesn’t become a strong leader in time, he will still have to become competent in preventing conflicts among the powerful factions who hold authority in the country while also avoiding internecine war among the country's powerful clans from heating up. But if Kim’s position doesn’t prove as strong as those of his father and grandfather, then it means that South Korea, China and even the West will simply put pressure on him to promote reforms in North Korea or to cancel the nuclear program.
Nonetheless, one can hardly feel great euphoria today with North Korea's concessions. The past two decades attest that neither isolating North Korea nor negotiating with Pyongyang has brought any real benefit. The U.S. and its Western allies could neither stop the North Korean nuclear program nor bring about a formal end to the Korean War (the military conflict of 1950-53, which ended with the signing of an armistice agreement), nor undermine or liberalize the North Korean regime, nor integrate North Korea into the world economy, nor achieve a reconciliation between Pyongyang and Seoul. Not one of those tasks has been fulfilled.
However, the general context in which we should regard the handing over of power to Kim Jong Un is, undoubtedly, the fatal inevitability that North Korea will begin making changes in the near future. That these changes will be no less weighty for the Far East region than the fall of the Berlin Wall was for Europe is already understood today. And, in the process of the aforementioned changes, a further power alignment will probably be worked out in this complex region, which is of the greatest strategic interest for all the main actors in this geopolitical theater — including the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.
Properly speaking, a solution is needed that would be the basis of a future settlement of the Korean problem. And a proposal for a proportional program and a guarantee of its precise fulfillment must also be forthcoming, along with a concrete proposal guaranteeing North Korea’s transition to a Chinese-type model with U.S. cooperation on resources and infrastructure. Which, seemingly, North Korean leaders are also expecting.
From this perspective, North Korea needs power in order to transition to Kim Jong Un and to unify North Korean society before a the emergence of Chinese-style perestroika will become possible. In order for the North Korean society to enthusiastically transition to a new version of Juche, it will undoubtedly need to be positioned as the path to a peaceful annexation of South Korea. And this is not only for the sake of deception, but because any other positioning in that deeply brainwashed society might cause considerable unrest, negatively impacting the solution of internal and, by extension, external problems.
But perestroika may have its own consequences. Because the greatest achievement of the Kim dynasty is the fact that, regardless of its brutal governance, its two previous leaders died of natural causes and their subjects even mourned them.
Today, what is critically important for Kim is whether, and to what extent, he will be able to control the North Korean situation or if he will fall under the control of the military and political elite. That is a very complicated dilemma for Kim Jong Un. With regard to his political survival, it may be better for North Korea’s new leader to change nothing and follow the course set by his father, Kim Jong Il.