Friday, April 21, 2000
North Korea: motives and the
The headlines are full of overblown rhetoric reverberating across
the strait which divides mainland from island east Asia - and Taiwan
from the People's Republic of China. But the less predictable
regional news of recent days has been that coming out of the Korean
peninsula, itself once viewed by Beijing as a part of China. This is
the impending summit between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il, and last
week's National Assembly election in South Korea.
First, that election. To North Korea's leaders it must seem as
bizarre and threatening an event as Taiwan's desire for
self-determination does to the party bosses in Beijing. The election
has been widely reported as giving a thumbs-down to the government
of President Kim Dae-jung and imperiling his reform agenda and
perhaps even his "sunshine policy" towards the North.
The opposition Grand National Party (GNP) won the largest number
of seats, and came close to a plurality, despite the surprise
announcement of the summit agreement just three days before the
polls. In fact, the (generally very popular) summit seems to have
made little difference to voters, whose minds were already made up.
But rather than being a defeat, the President's Millennium
Democratic Party (MDP) polled better than it had a right to expect.
Korea has a remarkable record for turning on its presidents, even
those popularly elected. So the party of DJ (as the president is
known) could, whatever its economic and reformist achievements,
expect scant sympathy at a mid-term election. It also needs
remembering that prior to DJ's election to the presidency in
December 1997 the GNP had an absolute majority in the assembly. Big
carrots and sticks were needed to persuade enough assemblymen to
change sides to give a majority to DJ and his coalition partner (and
one-time jailer) Kim Jong-pil and his United Liberal Democrats
The GNP's regional power base is in Kyongsang, in the southeast,
which is more populous than DJ's power base in Cholla in the
southwest. The real battle was in Seoul and its environs which
accounts for 40 per cent of the seats and where regional loyalties
are irrelevant. The MDP polled quite well there. The GNP's success
was largely at the expense of Kim Jong-pil who found that being the
favourite son of the Chungchong region was no longer enough - the
ULD lost two-thirds of its seats.
The implications for the future are that regionalism is of slowly
eroding importance in Korean politics. The MDP has strengthened its
position outside Cholla, which will be badly needed once DJ, the
hero of Cholla, has left the scene. Likewise after DJ, the GNP may
not be able to win Kyongsang votes as effortlessly as today. Parties
in Korea still revolve around strong individuals as well as regions
- but less so than in the past.
Money will remain crucial and voter disillusion with democratic
politics may follow. Voter turnout this time was sharply down at 57
per cent. But this election also showed that while disdain kept many
voters away, civic action campaigns against candidates of all
parties accused of financial and other misdemeanours were quite
effective, especially in the metropolis. Koreans may be too
impatient for their own good but they are always in earnest,
including in the efforts of the post-chaebol generation to raise the
quality of politics.
The net result of the election will clip DJ's wings, but not make
him a lame duck. He can probably cobble together enough votes to
push through important legislation. So long as he has a coherent
agenda and popular backing for reform, the massive executive powers
that the president enjoys should enable him to remain effective
until the end of his single term is nigh. He may however need to be
circumspect in the amount of money he offers the North in return for
the advances which the South hopes to get from and after the summit:
access for capital (not just handouts) from the South, family
reunions and progress in confidence building measures to reduce
The great unknowns are Pyongyang's motivation and goals. Is this
mainly a ploy to extract cash? Or does it represent a more
fundamental shift in Kim Jong-il's strategy in which the South,
rather than being a threat, becomes the means of shoring up the
In the short run, the North's motives are fairly obvious. By
announcing the deal just before the election, it will assume that DJ
owes them a favour. The timing was designed to influence the
election even if it failed to do so.
It has also been increasingly apparent that the North had been
making less progress in its talks with the US and Japan than hoped.
Washington remains too obsessed with the North's missile sales to be
prepared to make progress on other issues, and Japan has felt in no
hurry to offer reparations on the scale Pyongyang expects. So
tactically it made sense for Kim Jong-il to shift his attention to
the South - which he explicitly ignored.
However, there clearly are risks for the North. Direct,
high-level dealings could undermine the ideological basis of the
Pyongyang government, just as opening to direct contacts at lower
levels will open northern eyes to its grotesque economic failures.
But, six years after his father's death, Kim Jong-il feels strong
enough to take some risks. There may now also be a consensus in the
leadership that recognises the inevitability of change and that a
new approach to unification is the only way of saving their own
skins from a Ceausescu fate.
Most likely however the North, being in such a weak position, is
thinking tactically not strategically. It will extract what
resources it can from the summit, meanwhile probing how far the
South's public as well as government are prepared to go in their
efforts to buy security against a North whose collapse is now a more
realistic threat to the South than invasion.
There is a long way to go - some way even to get back to the
level of dialogue seen in the early 90s. The signals of progress
will likely not be dramatic announcements but subtle ones such as
the official designation of the leaders, turns of phrase in
communiques. Whether there is progress or not, this summit deserves
the closest attention.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and