How Charming; with Washington Bogged Down in Iraq, Kim Jong Il Is Now Trying to Play Nice with His Asian Neighbors

By Wehrfritz, George | Newsweek International, June 7, 2004 | Go to article overview

How Charming; with Washington Bogged Down in Iraq, Kim Jong Il Is Now Trying to Play Nice with His Asian Neighbors


Wehrfritz, George, Newsweek International


Byline: George Wehrfritz, With B. J. Lee in Seoul and Hideko Takayama in Tokyo

Crab season is always tense along the world's most heavily defended frontier. Each June, as rival fishing fleets from North and South Korea begin to harvest their tasty haul, they risk sparking a clash across a de facto sea border called the Northern Limit Line. In 1999 South Korean destroyers sank two enemy patrol boats, killing an unknown number of northern crewmen, in a showdown over the foggy fishing grounds. In 2002 six southern sailors died when a North Korean ship opened fire in a similar incident.

But this season Pyongyang is hoping to prevent another "crab war." In a gathering unprecedented since the Korean War, the top military brass from both Koreas met at a northern mountain resort on May 26 to engage in "tension reduction and trust building," as South Korean Navy Commodore Park Jeong Hwa put it. During inter-Korean ministerial talks earlier in May, the North's delegates shocked their southern counterparts by unexpectedly agreeing to the generals' meeting. After a six-hour summit the two sides agreed to consider setting up a naval-command hot line, to share radio frequencies between vessels and to meet again a week later.

Though hardly a breakthrough, the summitry is one element in a broader regional charm offensive being undertaken by the Hermit Kingdom. With Washington bogged down in Iraq and unlikely to launch any new initiatives on the Korean Peninsula ahead of the November U.S. presidential election, the North is taking advantage of the diplomatic lull by playing nice with its Asian neighbors. Besides opening military dialogue with the South, Pyongyang recently hosted Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Strongman Kim Jong Il offered vague hints during the visit that he might again freeze his covert A-bomb program--a key demand by Washington and its allies following Pyongyang's 2002 admission of a secret uranium-enrichment program. And the "Great Leader" himself traveled to Beijing in late April to shore up support from the communist ally.

What's behind the diplomatic flurry? The North is likely looking to obtain the financial assistance, technology and market access necessary to rebuild its tattered economy, while softening the resolve of Washington's Asian allies ahead of the next round of talks on the nuclear issue. "The need to open the economy is directly driving Pyong-yang's diplomatic agenda," says Daniel A. Pinkston, a senior research associate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "The resolution of outstanding security issues is necessary to fully open and capture the subsequent benefits."

Seoul, in particular, welcomes Pyongyang's overtures. The recent return to power of impeached President Roh Moo Hyun has shoved the country's politics further to the left than they've been in a generation--much to Pyongyang's advantage. Recent revelations that North Korea sold uranium to Libya didn't make headlines in South Korea, where the majority view today is that the threat of Pyongyang's nuclear program is overblown. Media reports suggest that the president will soon reinstate millions of dollars in government subsidies for inter-Korean tourism, paid to support the chaebol Hyundai for offering bus and cruise-ship tours north of the DMZ. The service nets Pyongyang tens of millions a year.

Seoul has also agreed to put up $16 million to remove land mines near a planned--and oft-delayed--industrial zone in the northern city of Gaesung, which will create thousands of jobs in the North.

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