THERE is an exhibit more ghastly and gruesome than the tatty stuffed Alsatian dog, awarded the Gustav Husak medal for sinking its teeth into a record number of attempted defectors from Communist Czechoslovakia that graced a dusty museum in Prague. It is an axe in a glass case on the North Korean side of the De Militarised Zone. In 1976, a group of American GIs attempted to fell a Poplar tree in an area the North Koreans believed was off limits to them, and the axe was turned against them by the ever vigilant border guards. Two US Army officer were killed
The Alsatian, like the Czech Communist regime is long gone, along with the Iron Curtain border that once separated East from West. But in North Korea, the axe is still in its case, and the Cold War border between North and South is bristling and more dangerous than it has been since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Ever since a team of international experts reported “overwhelming evidence” that the a South Korean military vessel, the Cheonan was torpedoed in March with the loss of nearly fifty sailors by a Northern torpedo, the war of words deteriorated into a tit for tat ratcheting up of the pressure on both sides. The World may have become used to alarmist reports of brinkmanship on the Korean peninsula, but make no mistake, this is without doubt the most serious crisis since the Armistice Agreement was signed, not so far away from where the notorious axe still resides.
Almost a decade ago I was the first Western journalist to “interview” a senior North Korean military figure in his office on the DMZ. I say “interview” because General Ri Cham- bok, let me leave my camera running on a table next to the teacups. His language then, is the language of now. Back then, as now, the South Koreans and their US allies were engaged in major military exercises. Back then – and this was before the temporary happier era of the ‘Sunshine policy” of engagement between North and South - the General talked darkly of the “threat” facing his country. He said the Americans had tactical nuclear missiles, that South Korean planes were illegally entering the North’s airspace. All of this was couched in the ever ready language of those, who as John Foster Dulles once remarked thrive on the “existence or creation of the idea of a threat”.
I have travelled widely in North Korea or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as it prefers to be known and have reported from that country on several occasions – although a recent interview I conducted with defectors from the North will probably be preclude me from returning. I have seen North Korea’s military in their full glory, met the country’s Head of State, Kim Yong-nam, stood thirty paces behind Kim Jong IL at the Ariyang mass games, and once even managed to get arrested for wielding a camera outside Pyongyang railway station. None of this makes me an expert, but I think I have an understanding of the mindset at least of the ageing veterans of the Korean War who preside over the twin pinnacles of power – below the Eternal President Kim IL Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong IL – the Korean Workers Party and the military.
North Korea’s leaders have not escaped the mindset of that debilitating war that saw more bombs dropped on the North than on Nazi Germany. Theirs is a World where self reliance is fused to Marxism Leninism, where Confucianism is fused to the Emperor system of old Korea. Limping along now on life support from China, the North is now retreating into its comfort zone of isolation and outright hostility to what it sees as a hostile World. It does not help that Kim Jong IL is ailing, that the Korean Workers Party and the military are jostling for influence, or that many of the younger technocrats whose political fortunes rose with warmer relations and improving trade and communications with the South, have largely disappeared from view.
So of course the North is denying that its torpedo sank the Cheonan, just as for years Kim Jong IL denied ordering the kidnapping of Japanese starlets to act out roles in his Movies. The point is that for the North Koreans, the rest of the World is not interested in its claim that the Cheonan was inside its waters. This possibly goes to the heart of what happened, since international experts have for some time argued that the “Northern Limit Zone” sea boundary between North and South should be changed – in the North’s favour to take into account new rules that have extended maritime boundaries from three to twelve miles. That there has never been a final Peace Agreement between the protagonists of the Korean War does not help either. It is possible that the sinking is a direct result of the jostling for influence between the military and the party, preparing for the post Kim Jong IL era, but given the North’s propensity to plan every move, this seems fanciful. What is clear is that the Northern leadership despise the South Korean Government of President Lee Myung-bak, and now with the North’s abrogation of the non aggression pact, and the ending of all ties with the South, as well as a range of UN Sanctions, feels it has nothing to lose.
Brinkmanship from the outside World should not seen as a serious option, for such is the tension that an even a minor incident could now lead to full scale War. Which is why by far the most important figure to emerge in this crisis is in the shape of China’s Vice Foreign Minister, Zhang Zhijun, a highly educated and cerebral man, who is urging caution and calm. Zhang Zhijun cut his teeth in China’s diplomatic service, where I first met him in London twenty years ago. He is a scholar of European politics, open but cautious. He may not be able to act independently of his Government, but having kept in touch with him – and having spent a fortnight with him visiting Outer Mongolian coalmines, Southern China and Tibet some years back – I am convinced that he could play a vital role in helping to begin to calm the tensions. It is neither in China’s interest for a conflagration to break out on the Korean Peninsula, as it is for the North Korean State to somehow implode. China does not want its effective boundary with the West to move up from the DMZ to the Yalu River.
It may be that we will hear rather more from Vice Minister Zhang Zhijun in the coming days, if this crisis is deemed as serious as the last nuclear crisis involving the North. We know that Kim Jong IL recently visited China, and that while China is frequently irritated by the antics of its neighbour, will seek to calm the hotter heads on both sides.
But I suspect that it will also have occurred to Zhang Zhijun and others in the Chinese leadership, that while North Korea cannot be abandoned, still less be subsumed into the South, some Chinese style economic modernisation, and even a less prickly and unpredictable post Kim Jong Il regime might just be worth encouraging. So light touch “regime change”, conducted more with a whimper than a bang, and with China’s involvement has to be the best hope.