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North Korea's new season of hope


He presided over a starving nation, created a perilously unstable nuclear state (albeit largely symbolic), and terrified his neighbours. But the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il should cause neither terror nor concern as much as the experts would have it.

Jim Walsh of MIT's security studies programs is one such individual who is keen to emphasise the gloomy aspects. 'We're entering a period that is especially dangerous.'

Nor should Jong-il's death encourage those who have their hearts set on regime change imposed from without. The Workers Party's statement suggests the successor is the dictator's youngest son, 27-year-old Kim Jong-un, under whose leadership 'we have to turn sadness into strength and courage, and overcome today's difficulties'.

The death of the despot after a 17-year rule provides a series of possibilities, not all of which are negative. In fact, the negative aspect will only come into play if the paranoid complexes of the regime are played into.

Internally, the regime may be fractious and the dynastic succession forged by Kim Jong-il prone to unravelling. Though little is known about Kim Jong-un, the fact that he seems somewhat green might make him vulnerable to power factions in the regime. Seoul's gesture of increased alertness across the world's most heavily armed frontier is precisely the sort of gesture that should be discouraged.

Time and again, the greatest problem with the regime has been less with its immediate neighbours than with its fear of the United States, which has made little secret of its intentions. Given the invasion of Iraq, North Korea, the third component of the 'axis of evil' so proclaimed by the Bush administration, felt it necessary to bolster the state against possible intervention.

The reason North Korea is the nuclear state it is today can be attributed not just to the ruthless regime itself, but also to the failure of Washington to keep negotiations going and instead pencilling the regime in as one in urgent need of 'regime change'.

The stance of the Obama administration is not a marked improvement. Former defense secretary Robert M. Gates had adopted the position that he 'doesn't want to buy the same horse twice.'

The demonisation of North Korea's late leader as being variously sanguinary, chain-smoking and insane did nothing to deal with the delicate crisis. If anything, it did everything to paint the various parties into corners they found enormously difficult to get out of.

A series of options have come into play. The first is to bring North Korea back into the fold of negotiations within the Six Party framework of talks that were, till they collapsed, a useful forum for deliberating over matters affecting the Korean Peninsula.

Virtually all political sides in the matter believe a regional solution to North Korean intransigence rests in an agreement that involves not merely the two Koreas, but also Japan, China, Russia and the United States. An olive branch alone is insufficient.

A formal peace treaty ending hostilities between Seoul and Pyongyang would be required, in addition to such reassurances as an affirmation of non-aggression by the United States, and a promise by Seoul not to adopt a nuclear weapons option. Economic supply to North Korea would also have to be factored into the equation.

The role of China, a long-term ally of North Korea, will be indispensable to reassuring Pyongyang as it transitions to its new regime. The support of Beijing is probably going to be guaranteed, given its continued interest in extracting natural resources at low cost from the peninsula.

It is now more urgent than ever that the issue be resolved. The region has seen low-level skirmishes between the North and South that, while costly, have been contained.

The sinking of the South Korean naval vessel the Cheonan in March 2010 saw the death of 46 sailors. Engagements have been fought at Daecheong (10 November 2009) and Yeonpyeong (15 June 1999, 29 June 2002). As long as these continue taking place, the possibility of all-out war remains.

The only certainty now is ignorance. As a former US military commander in South Korea claimed, 'Anyone who tells you they understand what is going to happen is either lying or deceiving himself.'

Binoy KampmarkBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. 

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Kim Jong-Il, North Korea



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Existing comments

Binoy Kampmark is right to point out that the demonisation of Kim Jong-il did little to assist the diplomatic efforts to haul the DPRK in from the cold to benefit the long-suffering North Korean people. That also applies to name-calling such as Bush's 'Axis of Evil' and the You tube piece heading the article and shown repeatedly on SBS which should know better. The Koreans - all Koreans - are a very proud people with deep sense of shame about the various occupations they have suffered. That shame, nowadays illustrated in the fact that it would be an American General, not a South Korean, who would head any battle with the North, has marked Korea's place in the world. A little bit of respect can go a long way.

Duncan MacLaren | 21 December 2011  

No-one gives a damn whether Kim Jong-il was a chain smoker or not. Except for our Greenish lefties. So on the grounds that I haven't seen them in particular jump up and down about the evils of Kim, dead or alive, I conclude it's entirely gratuitous to suggest that that portrait of him - accurate or not - had anything to do with the perception that he was an evil man. Moreover, the possibility that Kim was insane is, if anything, a charitable accounting for his ill deeds - akin to that sometimes given to Hitler. Hardly "demonization". On the contrary: exculpation. And "sanguinary"? Meaning, 'after bloodshed'? Are you seriously suggesting that, after years of presiding over the deaths of thousands upon thousands of his fellow countrymen, while he and his close followers live in comparative luxury, it's "demonization" to suggest that Kim Il-sung was "sanguinary"? But then I remember that this site happily publishes articles about Tony Abbott having no "moral core". Oh dear.

HH | 22 December 2011  

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