At Large

Another North Korean Crossroad

The benefits of knocking off the Uncle-Babysitter.

By 2.3.14

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There has been a well-defined pattern to negotiations pursued over the decades by North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — DPRK). It may be wishful thinking, but that pattern appears to have just changed and it looks like the Obama White House and John Kerry’s State Department have either missed it or chose to ignore the alteration.

The South Korean president, Ms. Park Geun-hye, sensing something different in the diplomatic climate, took the necessary first step in reconciliation on January 6, 2014 by again offering the possibility of resuming the reunion of relatives from North and South suspended since 2010. After a pro forma rejection Pyongyang quickly shifted ground in a few days and returned the same offer. The possibility of the effectively mutual gesture long had been available, but the timing now was right. The reason for the change in the position of the DPRK is what is most important.

The Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, Fu Ying, was rebuffed in April 2013 when he sought to restrain the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, from ordering the launch of a satellite. At the time it was believed that the new young DPRK leader was the one who had sent packing this very surprised Chinese envoy. As it is now revealed from anonymous official Beijing sources, it was Jang Song-taek, the then all powerful uncle-in-law of the new leader, who had pushed Kim Jong-un into abruptly sending off Vice Minister Fu Ying. According to the now unusually indiscreet Chinese Foreign Ministry sources, Jang Song-taek and his wife, Kim Jong-un’s aunt and sister of the late Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, had established what the duo had thought would be a ruling regency.

Kim Jong-un was deemed initially by most analysts to be the inexperienced and easily-guided figurehead. The new young leader purportedly would defer to his powerful uncle. Far sooner than anyone could predict, however, the roly-poly, Swiss-schooled, basketball-loving new leader developed his own coterie of loyal political and security partisans. Jang Song-taek came down hard on the person he had assumed was his obedient protégé. Mistake!

The Chinese sources say that Jang Song-taek attempted to lay down the law to his nephew on several public occasions. To the older man’s shock he was summarily dismissed. What swiftly followed was – even for North Korea – the speediest non-trial, then physical removal from a full blown General Politburo meeting and a very quick execution. This was accompanied by an efficient killing of Jang Song-taek’s personal staff and close associates. Aunt Kim Kyung-hui seems to have been spared. In one fell swoop the very young 30-year-old Jong-un had performed a coup within his own government and forcefully had taken over as the third Kim to rule North Korea. Everyone waited to see in fact rather than just symbolically what the next step would be. They didn’t have to wait long.

Behind the scenes the Chinese Foreign Ministry passed a discreet word encouraging Ms. Park to open the door again to rapprochement discussions with Pyongyang. The reunion avenue was there and the confident President Park Geun-hye introduced the idea at a press conference. What followed was, for the Koreas, a lightning reponse from Pyongyang. At first there was a typical negative knee jerk reaction from the North’s Information Ministry, but that was quickly followed by a statement from the DPRK Central News Agency that reunions could be held, as before, at the Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea’s southeast. It was a complete reversal.

The role of China in this phase of North-South relations is important because it indicates a possibly aggressive participation in what had been a seemingly passive approach after the Fu Ying incident. What happened was a strengthening of the Chinese covert efforts to reestablish a manipulative role in North Korean rule that had diminished in recent years, especially during the period of Kim Jong-il’s illness and eventual death. It was during this period that Jang Song-taek had appeared to exert his increasing status and power in his and his wife’s position in choosing and guiding the late “Dear Leader’s” successor.

In an unexpected tacit recognition that past peace initiatives had been used by Pyongyang simply as political propaganda devices, Kim Jong-un released what was called “an open letter” through his Central News Agency that strongly emphasized the offer to reinstate the reunions were a real, not merely convenient, invitation to begin what was termed improved “North-South relations.” The North is making an effort to signal a willingness to negotiate past differences, say Chinese government sources. For Beijing to interject its positive interpretation of the DPRK’s initiative — and thus its own reputation — at this particular moment of Kim Jong-un’s exercise of deadly force, shows the old line North Korean power brokers that the young man has Beijing’s full support.

It has been part of the traditional North Korean negotiating technique to pretend to inflexibility in order to induce concessions from the other side. So far in these first weeks of Kim Jong-un’s leadership out from under the thumb of his uncle/babysitter, there has been a willingness to quickly establish an accord (on the reunions). The charges of the South Koreans that Pyongyang must apologize for its attack on one of the South’s warships and artillery barrage of an outlying island have been matched against the North’s demand for a cessation of the planned U.S./ROK annual joint military exercises. In spite of this typical procedure of demand and counter-demand, a new and positive step seems in process.

Does this mean a breakthrough in the negotiations that began with the armistice talks of 1953? There is no reason yet to trust North Korea. But at least this time Beijing is insisting a new day has dawned. Then, of course, there is the question of trusting Beijing!

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.