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  




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