2008: Ups and downs in Korea

12. Jan 2009

 by Geir Helgesen, Senior Researcher, NIAS

Last year in Korea was, as was previous years, filled with ups and downs, hopes and doubts, surprises and shocks, mystical occurrences and wild speculations, political shrewdness and political stupidity, conflict and thaw, tragedies and hope, fear and forgiving. All in all probably not so different from previous years, so what can be said about the recent past and the possible future on the Korean peninsula?

Korea is still a divided country, despite periods with thaw and positive developments, the relations between the two halves of the peninsula can at best be characterized as being marked by skepticism, usually it is hostile and often the situation seems to be on the brink of war. Not from any perspective an acceptable situation considering that the peninsula is highly militarized, including the presence of US bases and troops. This because the war in 1950-53 never formally ended: a ceasefire and not a peace agreement is the basis upon which the two opposing systems are co-existing. Although the cold war ended around 1990, on the Korean peninsula the balance is still sought upheld between the cold and the cruel war.

How can it be that this crazy situation prevails despite numerous attempts to have it solved? There are internal reasons: for instance the fact that for the majority of people North and South of the demarcation line, this abnormal situation is perceived as normal, as they have never experienced anything else. They know how to relate to “the other” as an enemy, this has been internalized through upbringing, education and political schooling. They do not know otherwise. This “abnormal normality”, however, can hardly be politically justified, as it implies an enormous waste of human resources; is a constant economic drain that creates inhuman conditions in parts of the peninsula; and, because it poses a real threat for the prevailing peace in Korea as well as in the whole region. And yet, to some extent the hostility between the two systems is also a factor that legitimizes their existence: the political authority on each side claims to be guaranteeing the security of its people confronted with the evil other. It is well known that an external enemy may function as the glue that bind people together in an otherwise disillusioned or fragmented population. Externally there are several reasons why some players, even main ones, may hesitate to invest their total energy in seeking a sustainable solution. In Japan North Korea plays an important role as the ideal threat immediately outside its borders, and this has skillfully been utilized by conservative and nationalistic forces in that country. For people devoted to high-tech weaponry development in the USA it has also been convenient to point at the North Korean military might as a main reason for a continued improvement of different anti-ballistic systems. Not that North Korea was innocent in creating these relations, the point is that what North Korea said and did, and what external forces hostile to North Koreas positive development needed, corresponded almost too well.

Was there then anything that happened in 2008 that may be signaling the direction of future developments on the peninsula? Despite speculations about political instability in the North we learned that their leader is in firm control, even when he becomes invisible to the world resulting in all kind of media-speculations. Thus the new US strategy in the last years of the Bush era: to accept reality as it is and stop dreaming about regime-change, was justified. This was too little and too late, however, to create an environment conducive to a serious and productive dialogue between the two traditional enemies, the DPRK and the USA.

Looking for big changes one have to turn to South Korea, where the two previous presidents Kim Dae-jung and Rho Moo-hyun over a period of ten years had created a different atmosphere between the two halves of the divided country, establishing a new platform for dialogue and cooperation. The new approach labeled “Sunshine” policy and later “Engagement” policy, realizing that hostility between South and North would continue endlessly unless a radical change was actively promoted, convinced Kim Dae-jung that sticks would never scare North Korea into a mood of change. To him the logical alternative was to use carrots, and as South Korea was characterized by abundance and North by scarcity, the Sunshine policy meant a transfer of means from South to North.   Despite a decade of improved relations this era was halted when South Korean voters late last year elected the conservative President Lee Myung-bak, who pledged a tougher stand towards the North. Arguing that the engagement policy was too expensive for South Korea, and that North Korea failed to reciprocate as expected, President Lee reintroduced the stick, with the immediate consequence that North Korea retreated to the previous cold-war mode of relations. This, however, may be a short interlude in the bumpy relations between the two Koreas. One reason supporting this expectation is that President Lee after all, as a former successful businessman, will focus on results rather than on ideology, and until now his North Korea policy has proved counterproductive. Another reason is that a new president is moving into the White House in Washington, a president who have emphasized dialogue instead of power policy in foreign relations, who have stated that one needs to talk to ones enemies, not only allies and friends, and who may be able to put eight years of failed US policy towards North Korea aside and connect back to the last period of the Clinton/Albright era where a breakthrough between the USA and North Korea was closer than ever before.

Is North Korea ready for this? Reading official statements from Pyongyang in response to what they see as hostile attacks from Japan, South Korea and the USA, one would doubt it. But these statements are responses to repeated criticism from the above mentioned countries, and North Korea does not restrict itself when it comes to verbal fights, has never done. Looking at what is going on in North Korea, however, how reality is changing in response to changed conditions and in anticipation of a changing policy, with corresponding new laws and regulations, one might be more confident that North Korea is ready. North Korea, its people and its political authorities, are moving. Some move reluctantly, everybody does it cautiously, but change has come to North Korea as status quo would mean stagnation and economic suicide. The outside world has an impact on developments in North Korea, and if North Korean authorities perceive the outside world as friendly and safe they will prefer and promote change. That was Kim Dae-jung’s deep insight and nothing has proved it wrong.

Geir Helgesen