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Friday, April 21, 2000
North Korea: motives and the money

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 (ULD).

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 military tensions.

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 communist regime?

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 commentator.


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