To many long-time observers, the current behaviour of the government of North Korea now led by Kim Jong-Un, is reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s 1939 comment on the Soviet Union under Stalin. He described it as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” But at the same time, commentaries on the death this week of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her relationship with President Gorbachev in a then changing atmosphere in the Soviet Union, similarly remind us of that country’s evolution from the era of Stalin.
In that context, we are forced to ask ourselves whether the current military and other manoeuvres initiated by North Korea’s new President and party leader Kim Jong-Un, are perhaps an inevitable step in a long-term evolution of North Korea, with Mr Kim himself at this time trying to satisfy just too many divergent elements within the autocratic leadership in his country, while he seeks to consolidate his power and authority. Indeed, the newly-elected (December 2012) President Park Geun-hye of South Korea won her victory partly through the electorate’s acceptance of her promise of pursuing what were perceived to be possibilities for a normalizing of relationships with North Korea under its the new leader.
Recent events emanating from the North suggest that Mr Kim, whom many analysts have read as appearing to want to modernize his country beyond Kim il Sung’s efforts (or lack of them) and at least pursue an evolution of positive relationships with the outside world, and in particular South Korea, would seem to have been misread. Mr Kim appears not only to be on the old warpath of Kim il Sung, but to be shooting his country in the foot, so to speak, by even closing off existing cooperative border industrial activities between the two countries.
Present events would appear too, to have come as something of a surprise to other interested countries, particularly in Asia. China, which has seemed to have been urging Mr Kim not necessarily to follow its (China’s) own path ‒ from a Chinese point of view that would constitute an interference in North Korea’s affairs ‒ but to take cognizance of the normalization of relations between itself and other countries in Asia and the wider world, would seem to have failed in its entreaty. Interpretations of this week’s statement by newly-elected Chinese President Xi Jinping, that “no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain,” suggests that he is speaking, even if euphemistically, to Mr Kim and his colleagues; and that North Korea’s behaviour is somewhat of an impediment to the evolution of China’s own position vis-à-vis the country’s Asian counterparts in particular.
It is now obvious that the various countries of the Asia-Pacific sphere are in pursuit of a new arrangement, or set of arrangements, between themselves. China’s leadership itself, perceives a substantial task of coming to terms with its policy position of engagement with the capitalist world, as it evolves its own country’s policy and practical position of state capitalism. This involves establishment of a major presence in Western institutions like the WTO and the World Bank, and influencing the policies of those institutions particularly in its own sphere of Asia-Pacific relations. And it also seeks to pursue a course of reordering its geopolitical relationships with major powers like the United States, Japan and Russia, while giving the impression that it does not wish to dominate the Asia-Pacific geopolitical and geo-economic arena to the detriment of emerging economies like Indonesia, and beyond to India.
But Mr Kim in North Korea will be observing that China itself has developed reservations about two things in the Asian-Pacific arena. The first is a concern with what is now described as an American “pivot” towards Asia, which it sees partly as an American attempt not only to maintain its geopolitical influence in the area, but to maintain and advance its economic position in the area as countries there currently advance their productive capabilities at some pace. Secondly, China would wish over the long term, to resolve its various problems with Japan and other countries in the area, without the substantial military and diplomatic presence that the US has had, and seeks to maintain in the area, since the Second World War.
It may well be, following the recent China-Japan contretemps in the South China Sea, that Mr Kim believes that he can try the same kind of manoeuvre with South Korea, on the grounds that there are still post-Korean War matters that need to be settled more advantageously to his country. He, and groups within North Korea, may feel that he needs to nudge China to support his initiatives, however outrageous they may seem to the outside world, or however much they may be interpreted by the Chinese as interfering with the course of their own diplomatic strategies for advancing its own influence in the Asia-Pacific area. A play in the South China Sea over contested islands, they will surely say to Mr Kim, is not to be interpreted as having the potential to destabilise present and evolving geopolitical relations in the Asia Pacific area. On the other hand they will see Kim’s behaviour as strengthening the American hand in the area, and further legitimizing the US’s Asian pivot.
There would also appear to be some indication that there is a certain difficulty in even the Chinese being able to presently discern what exactly Mr Kim wants in exchange for ending the rumbling that he has himself started. The statement by the Chinese President does, however, indicate some irritation at Kim’s behaviour, and suggests that whatever he wants it is not worth destabilizing the larger geopolitical play now evolving, however uncertainly, between the US and China at this time.
But one consequence of present events is, that it may encourage the US and China to work even more closely together, to prevent the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma from getting any further out of hand; and to find more innovative ways to induce this post-Korean War relic to evolve in new directions. After all, the Chinese have seen a North Vietnam leadership now beginning to clothe itself in the mantle of state capitalism, and even seek American support to protect its small country’s position in emerging Chinese-influenced Asian relations, through the normalization of relationships with an old enemy.