It was announced this week that the United Nations Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Lynn Pascoe, and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Adviser, Kim won-soo, will shortly travel to North Korea in a potentially ground breaking mission designed to ease the recalcitrant North back in from the cold. This visit follows on from the visit of former President Bill Clinton last year to Pyongyang, and seems likely to lay the ground for Ban Ki-moon to travel to the North himself. Few overseas visits deserve the epithet ‘historic’, but if Ban does travel to Pyongyang, ‘historic’ it will be.
The timing of the proposed visit is key, and must have been taken in the knowledge that the situation inside North Korea is extremely volatile. Sporadic artillery exchanges have been taking place over disputed islands between North and South, while at the same time there have been reports of extremely rare protest within the North in the wake of a currency re-evaluation which has led many in that country despairing at the now apparently worthless piles of cash they have hoarded for years. Kim Jong IL, who has suffered a stroke is said to be preparing to hand over to his third son, Kim Jong-un, and there are reports of growing rivalry between the military and the Korean Workers Party in the power vacuum that is beginning to emerge. To top it all, UN sanctions are really biting. Only this week, the head of the Pyongyang department charged with raising hard currency, Kim Dong-un was sacked. According to South Korean Agencies – who have of course something of an axe to grind when it come to reporting the North – Kim Dong-un has been blacklisted by so many countries, he is now unable to travel. He was, until a few days ago, in charge of Room 39, part of the Department that oversees 120 North Korean companies and mines, and which are responsible for forty per cent of the country’s trade. Much of this trade is in weaponry.
Both Pascoe and Kim will likely appreciate that pushing North Korea into a corner may not result in the regime running up the white flag. In fact, it is likely to do the reverse. Some experienced North Korea watchers are predicting that Kim Jong-il will order another nuclear test sometime this year.
So what would it take to really break the impasse, and bring an end to the perennial brinkmanship that is the hallmark of the North’s somewhat schizophrenic relations with the South? Even former President Bush knew that North Korea needed to be handled with extreme care and caution, and with the election of President Obama it did seem for a while that the re-constituted Six Party talks on nuclear disarmament had at least some prospect for success.
To understand North Korea is to accept that much is still seen through the prism of the brutal Korean War, a war that has still to be formally ended. While it suits the North to play one power off against another, to offer blandishments and withdraw them, there is a consistency to Pyongyang’s demand that the United States negotiates directly, rather than as a member of the Six Parties, before nuclear disarmament can take place. While much of the World is variously threatened and sometimes amused by the antics of Kim Jong-il, the North is sufficiently isolated to know that it can extract advantages by blowing hot and cold. It also feels threatened by the US presence in South Korea, and surrounded by hostile powers – apart from China. Everything that the North does and says is carefully calibrated.
Should Ban Ki-moon eventually head for Pyongyang it will be because Lynn Pascoe and Kim Win-soo are confident that he – and the United Nations – will come away with something. The prize will be the re-entry of North Korea into the Six Party Talks, and renewed moves to dismantle the nuclear plant at Yongbyong. If Ban Ki-moon can also breathe some life into North – South relations, that will be an added boon.
There are plenty of good reasons for having a Korean heading the United Nations, but bringing the Communist North in from the cold might just be the best one.