Commentary in SCMP, June 16
It is a momentous time in Northeast
Asia. Visits are just symbols but symbols mean something. This week's
trip to Pyongyang by Kim Dae Jung is the most remarkable visit since
Sadat met Begin or even since Nixon journeyed to shake hands with Mao.
But it is not just one mega visit that needs watching. Last week all
kinds of leaders found it necessary to be in Tokyo for the memorial
service for late Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. The week before
that, Kim Jong Il broke the habit of a third of his own lifetime by
taking the train to Beijing for a meeting with President Jiang Zemin
and co. And not to be outdone, President Putin announced that he would
soon visit Pyongyang - not only the first leader from Moscow but the
first significant head of state from anywhere to give face to the Pyongyang's
Dear Leader with an official visit.
Let us start with the Obuchi service
if only because there is an important Hongkong issue which has been
overlooked by our own Dear Leader. Mr Tung may think that Mr Obuchi
was just another in a long line of forgettable Japanese prime ministers
of no more importance to the world at large than the Chief Executive
of the SAR. He may believe that it would be unpatriotic to show undue
respect for a Japanese prime minister. Or, even more bizarrely, that
the One Country principle meant this was just a matter for Beijing and
precluded his attendance. But the fact of the matter is that President
Clinton felt that the symbolism was important enough for him to spend
24 hours on an airplane.
Leaders ranging from John Howard to
President Wahid, Kim Dae Jung and Lee Kuan Yew were there. So too was
China's vice premier Qian Qichen. If Mr Tung was too busy arranging
(surely not his job) the funeral of T.K. Ann, could he not have despatched
Anson Chan a senior figure who has dealings with the outside world and
is about to make an official visit to Brussels. Instead the SAR deputed
the Home Affairs Secretary, an official of no consequence overseas (and
scant repute in Hongkong.) Mr Tung and Mrs Chan meanwhile had time to
entertain on Sunday one of the sleazier Asian leaders, General Maung
Aye, deputy head of the drug-export dependent Burmese military junta.
Don't imagine the Japanese don't notice these things. They may not study
funeral pecking orders as closely as Mr Tung's mainland colleagues study
their equivalents in Beijing. But if Hongkong wants a proper profile
in Asia for its Two Systems status, it has to make an effort. It is
as important for Mr Tung to be seen at major Asian gatherings as to
talk to US senators about American foreign trade policy and WTO. Hongkong's
relationship with Japan is no less important than that with the US.
In the years ahead it may become more important if (I'm sceptical but
that's another matter) there is progress towards Asian regional monetary
cooperation - a goal publicly supported by Donald Tsang and Joseph Yam.
Which takes us back to Korea. The recent
visits have set all kinds of forces in motion which had been frozen
for quite some time. It is a time for caution as well as hope. Note
that the initiative has been taken by the player with weakest cards
- Kim Jong Il. He was the one who acceded to Kim Dae Jung's long standing
desire for a meeting. He then raised other expectations by meetings
Jiang Zemin - and visiting the Legend computer factor, thus suggesting
that he high have domestic reform in mind, not just a modest thaw along
the DMZ. These moves followed lower key ones establishing full diplomatic
relations with countries such as Italy. So what is Kim Jong Il up to?
Does he have a grand plan? Does he want to re-invent himself, making
up for the economic failures of his regime by presenting himself as
the leader towards peaceful reunification? Or is he just making some
opportunistic moves to change the focus of debate about the North and
so extract more money from the South and elsewhere to prop up his regime?
Until recently Pyongyang's diplomacy had been focussed on improving
relations with the US while ignoring the South. Has he really changed
his strategy. Or was he frustrated because he was making scant headway
with the US, largely because of Washington's with strategic weapons
issues, particularly missile sales.
Only time will tell what Kim Jong
Il considers his own best route to survival in power, and avoidance
of obloquy in the history books. But the goals of the other players
are a little clearer, even if very different. The South is sufficiently
comfortable with the US shield, its own economic power and the leash
that Beijing keeps on Pyongyang to put security third in its list of
concerns.It is so close to the North's artillery that the long range
missile issue is largely irrelevant. Top of its list is the emotional
issue of family reunions, for which the South is prepared to pay a significant,
but not unlimited, price in economic aid. Kim Dae Jung is constrained
by parliament, in which the opposition is the largest party, from giving
too much. Secondly, it wants real economic cooperation, so that it firms
can both rebuild and find new markets in the North.
Unification is for most a long range
goal, for the moment more to be feared than welcomed. China wants a
stable peninsula and hence one which eventually no longer justifies
the presence of US troops. It also wants a Korea which follows its own
economic example. Opening up may have dangers, but in China's view the
regime will ultimately collapse unless it can start to deliver economic
benefits. Collapse would mean disorder and possible sudden reunification.
China does not want a unified, economically
advanced Korea - its has had trouble enough with a unified but impoverished
Vietnam - unless China is strong enough that Korea acknowledge a quasi-tributary
status. Japan, bereft of its own strategic weapons, is worried about
Pyongyang's. This is an emotive issue in Japan, even if the realistic
threat is slight. Missing persons issue have also made Japan reluctant
to offer the amount of money Pyongyang has been looking for. However,
Japan which for centuries has vied with Beijing for influence in Korea,
cannot afford to be left out of the picture, so if the Kim-Kim talks
go well it too will soon be opening its wallet. It sees economic opportunities
in the North, but has no more desire than Beijing to see a united Korea.
Russia just wants to be a player again
in an area which is of legitimate strategic concern to it. In the long
run it favours a strong Korea as a balance against both China and Japan.
More immediately however
the developments on the peninsula fit nicely with Putin's aim of rebuilding
relations with immediate neighbours. He started with the central Asian
CIS states and can now move on. It is not specifically anti-American
or pro anyone else but is designed to replace both communist era ideology
and Yeltsin-era emotionalism with a policy based on his perception of
Russia's national interest.
No one has done more than the US to
secure peace on the peninsula for the past 47 years and create the conditions
for the prosperity of the South. The US has no particular interest in
the continued division of Korea. The US will certainly welcome any reduction
of tensions coming out the Kims' meetings. Any sustained opening to
the outside world by Pyongyang will have to be accompanied by its abandonment
of the use of nuclear and missile developments as crude (but effective)
bargaining tools. Even if Kim Dae Jung never mentions the weapons issue
at the talks, the North will already understand them.
However, the strategic weapons issue
aside, the Korean status quo has been quite comfortable for the US.
It has kept the South firmly in the camp not just of the west but enabled
it to become a major player in globalised capitalism. The US presence
in Korea has been an important part of its regional presence, and its
relationship with Japan - the most important, bar none, for the rest
of Asia. But the region as a whole could be destabilised if Kim Jong
Il finds that emotive pan-Korean talk, plus money injections from the
neighbours, is more effective in undermining Seoul-Washington ties than
his bombs, rockets or juche ideology ever could.
So, welcome though the talks are, they
could set in train changes with unpredictable results which may not
be entirely beneficial. Meanwhile it is worth noting that the one group
who would most benefit from reunification are the ones who will have
least influence on the future. They are the impoverished and oppressed
citizens of the North. Their best hope for reunification may still rest
with delivering to Kim Jong Il the fate that he deserves -- that of
East Germany's Honecker and perhaps that of Rumania's Ceausescu.. ends
TOP OF THE PAGE