May 24, 2011 — North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s seventh official visit to China is once again drawing attention to whether the reclusive state will forge a major economic partnership with its main ally and provider of aid.
In addition to revisiting China’s underdeveloped northeastern provinces last week, Kim traveled in his special train all the way to Yangzhou near Shanghai. The secretive leader is expected to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao soon.
President Lee Myung-bak has expressed optimism that the destitute North could learn from the Chinese model of economic development, but many observers including an expert at a U.S. think tank believe it is time for Seoul to be more proactive and pragmatic in dealing with Pyongyang.
“Koreans and Americans alike should wish to advance South Korean influence on the North, rather than watch the acceleration of possible Chinese economic absorption of North Korea,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Seoul imposed special regulations and sanctions on inter-Korean exchanges in May last year after international investigators concluded that the North torpedoed its warship, killing 46 South Korean seamen. The Lee administration insists on maintaining the status quo until Pyongyang apologizes for attacking the Cheonan in March and Yeonpyeong Island in November last year.
The May 2010 measures restricted all inter-Korean exchanges, slowing down South Korean factories in the North’s Gaeseong industrial park and prolonging the suspension of a joint tourism venture in Mount Geumgang.
“President Lee’s disciplined and principled approach to not rewarding North Korean aggression is founded on a commendable premise,” Cronin said.
“Yet, one year after the May 2010 special measures and sanctions, (the situation) suggests that this particular pressure has not clearly advanced South Korean national interests.”
For both political and financial reasons, the North in the meantime has been cementing ties with China. Kim’s excursion to China is his third in about a year.
“China has let the pressure off of Kim Jong-il’s regime, which in turn is why President Lee’s approach has not had a strong chance of achieving its fundamental goal: namely, an alteration of North Korean behavior,” said the U.S. analyst with a 25-year career in government and academic research centers.
“The U.S.-led efforts to rein in North Korean illicit economic activity during the Bush administration clearly got the attention of Kim, but those efforts may also have shown that the North Korean regime will cling tightly to its nuclear weapons like a baby clings to a blanket for protection.”
Cronin stressed that it was time for Seoul and Washington to “devise a more pragmatic approach” or “seek a new step-by-step approach within a new diplomatic framework,” hinting on the need for resumption of dialogue with the North.
“This approach also may fail to achieve any serious alteration of the Kim regime’s behavior, but it might reduce the chances of North Korean provocations and missile and nuclear test diplomacy, at least for a period,” he said.
“It also might therefore open the door to a bit more economic exchange to help offset mounting Chinese investment. The channels of communication could be useful in the event of a variety of contingencies, including possibly a sudden political transition.”
Cronin said he could imagine “a hopeful but not unrealistic” series of steps in the coming months that could see a North Korean “apology,” perhaps along the lines of the 2006 foreign ministry statement that expressed regret about its intruding submarine, followed by some easing of Seoul’s May 2010 measures.
About Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s 27-year-old son who is expected to gain an official title next year as the country’s new leader, Cronin expressed concerns.
“The thought of an isolated, privileged man under 30 assuming control over a nuclear arsenal and a country still in a (technical) state of war is frightening,” he said.
“When Kim Jong-il is gone, North Korea will face untested leadership amidst profound problems. This may well provide a more benign explanation of why Kim Jong-il appears prepared to rent part of North Korea to the Chinese, and why the Chinese may be so keen to keep North Korea stable.”