KIM JONG IL'S NUCLEAR BRINKSMANSHIP
New Cold War on the Korean Peninsula
By Wieland Wagner
There was a time when South Koreathought rapprochement with the North could result in the kind of peaceful
reunification seen in Germany.
With Pyongyangnow flexing its atomic muscles, peace on the peninsula looks as far away as
He looks old and
frail, as if standing for long periods of time were a challenge, and yet he
refuses to slow down. A few days ago, he met with the Chinese leadership in Beijing, and then he dined with former United States
President Bill Clinton, the husband of current US Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton. But for South Korea's
grand old statesman, former President Kim Dae Jung, 83, the meetings were of
the greatest importance. The intensification of the crisis in East
Asia has Kim worried.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il seems to have recovered from his
illness, but the search for his successor is on.
Kim also invited SPIEGEL to his home in Seoul-- to explain why he is issuing an urgent appeal to the US and Chinato take North Korea's
nuclear threat seriously. The list of possible worries is long and disturbing.
Last week, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, 67, threatened his southern
neighbors with a "strong military strike," immediately after testing
an atomic weapon. Pyongyangalso announced it was tearing up the north-south cease-fire agreement signed
between the two countries in 1953. North Korea also said it would view
US efforts to give up its nuclear program as a declaration of war.
Kim, though, says
he is not particularly worried about a crisis of that magnitude. Still, he
feels there is no time to lose when it comes to negotiating with the man in Pyongyang.
In his house, Kim
Dae Jung is surrounded by the framed memories of his dramatic life as a
politician, images that bear witness to the struggles faced by this former
dissident who, under South Korea's former military dictatorship, was first
kidnapped and then sentenced to death and who, in 1998, rose to become the
country's democratically elected president.
large photograph is displayed on the wall behind his armchair. It depicts the
award ceremony of the Nobel Peace Prize, which he received in 2000 for his
policy of reconciliation, or "sunshine policy," a few months after
his historic summit with the North Korean dictator in Pyongyang.
Kim was inspired
by the former West Germany's
Ostpolitik -- the West German policy of seeking to improve its relations
with the Communist Eastern Bloc which guided Bonn's foreign policy for two decades
starting in 1969. Some even venerate Kim as "Korea's Willy Brandt," a
reference to the German chancellor who began Ostpolitik. But unlike his
German role model, with whom he was on good terms, the elderly Korean must now
look on as his legacy is dismantled and the longed-for reunification of his
divided country becomes increasingly unlikely.
On Monday of last
week, something happened that Kim Dae Jung had long warned against: North Koreadetonated a nuclear bomb. The underground explosion was believed to have been
up to 20 times as powerful as the Stalinist country's first nuclear test almost
three years ago. In fact, its explosive force may even have been as great as
the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the very end
of World War II. Even in neighboring China, the ground shook so
violently in places that local residents though it was an earthquake. Filled with
panic, teachers rushed their students out of school buildings.
It wasn't long
before the political aftershock reached the capitals of the West. US President
Barack Obama, who only recently had painted his vision of a world without
nuclear weapons in a speech in Prague,
criticized Pyongyangfor what he called a "threat to international peace."
Even China, North Korea's closest ally,
announced it was "resolutely opposed" to Kim Jong Il and his bomb. In
April, Beijing practically came to Kim Jong Il's
defense when he fired a long-range missile over Japanand into the Pacific Ocean. China, together with Moscow,
blocked a resolution in the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions
Don't Go Too Far
This time the UN
body acted with unusual speed and unanimity, condemning the nuclear test on the
same day and taking steps to prepare a new, "strong" resolution, as
announced by Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the current chairman of the
Security Council. In Moscow, officials were
surprisingly clear in issuing a warning to North Korea not to go too far.
The world is
aghast. With a mixture of disbelief and concern, it has looked on for days as Pyongyang descends into a
military frenzy, beginning with the atomic test, followed by the firing of
short-range missiles and, finally, the suspected resumption of operations at
the Yongbyon nuclear reprocessing plant. Is all of this nothing but rhetoric,
as it has been in the past? Or is Kim Jong Il truly capable of eventually going
on a nuclear rampage?
Both the US and South Korea responded to the week
of threats by raising their militaries' level of readiness. And there is little
doubt that North Korea's
generals are making headway in their bomb-making efforts. But it looks as
though the world is about to witness the same ritual, once again, that the
North Korean dictator has been staging for years.
situation unfolded when Pyongyangconducted its first nuclear test, in 2006. After showing initial outrage, the
world imposed sanctions, but they were ineffective. The starving nation has
little to lose, especially with Chinakeeping it alive. The upshot was that Washingtonsat down with Pyongyanga few months later to address a decades-old question: In return for what
financial assistance and guarantees of survival is the regime prepared to
abandon its nuclear program?
For Kim Dae Jung,
the South Korean icon of peace, there is a certain sense of déjà-vu to all of
this. In 1994, he looked on as then US President Clinton agreed to supply North Koreawith oil and light-water reactors. In return, North Korea promised to freeze its
Clinton's successor, former President George W.
Bush, initially included North
Korea in his "Axis of Evil" and
called Kim Jong Il a "pygmy." In the end, however, Bush addressed him
as "dear Mr. Chairman," promising economic aid and the possibility of
diplomatic recognition in return for Pyongyang's
agreement to abandon its nuclear program.
Less than a year
ago, the dictator ordered the demolition of the cooling tower at the Yongbyon
reactor, in a symbolic gesture that was televised around the world. Last fall,
Bush removed North Koreafrom Washington's
list of state sponsors of terrorism. In the end, however, Washingtonwas unable to convince Pyongyangto disclose all of the details of its nuclear weapons program.
Korean President Kim Dae Jung assigns much of the blame for Kim Jong Il's
renewed nuclear posturing to the United States. The North Korean
dictator, says Kim Dae Jung, sounding almost like a Kim Jong Il mouthpiece, is
"disappointed" in Obama and feels that he is not receiving the
attention he deserves. He complains that while Obama focuses on Afghanistan, Pakistan,
the Middle East, Iran, Russia and "even Cuba,"
he hasn't even appointed his full time of experts on North Korea yet.
Dictator Kim Jong
Il, on the other hand, is in a great hurry. Although his recovery from an
alleged stroke has been surprisingly swift, the tyrant in a tracksuit, who
expects his subjects to pay homage to him as if he were a deity, is sensing
that he too is mortal. It is high time that he secure a successor, but to do so
he needs the Western superpower's recognition, says Kim Dae Jung. "At the
moment they are desperate."
The course of the
Stalinist succession is currently being set in Pyongyang. The "Dear Leader," as
Kim Jong Il is called, recently named his brother-in-law Chang Song Taek to the
National Defense Commission (NDC), the government's highest-ranking executive
organization, which is headed by Kim Jong Il himself. In an emergency, Chang
could act as regent for Kim Jong Il's youngest son, Jong Un. The product of
Kim's relationship with deceased partner Ko Young Hee, he attended a school in Switzerland and
is a fan of Western pop stars. The "Dear Leader," an avid collector
of Hollywood films, is believed to see Jong Un
as being most like himself.
The recent threats
emanating out of North Koreacould also be interpreted as military background music to a reshuffling of personnel
and as a warning to potential rivals. In 1998, a short time after Pyongyang had fired a Taepodong rocket across Japanand into the Pacific, it announced a new distribution of power, with Kim Jong
Il assuming the chairmanship the NDC. From then on his father, who had died
four years earlier, would hold office as the country's eternal president.
This time, though,
tiny North Korea is becoming
ever more brazen in its dealings with Chinaand the US.
And attitudes in both Washington and Beijing are changing.
Fewer and fewer experts share the detached view of former South Korean
President Kim Dae Jung, who believes that North Korea is merely using its
nuclear program as a sort of trump card to extort guarantees of the regime's
survival and financial assistance from the United States.
Instead, says Seoul political scientist Yun Duk Min, Pyongyang has no intention whatsoever of
giving up its status as the world's newest nuclear power. He believes that the
North Koreans intend to follow in India's and Pakistan's footsteps, retaining
their arsenal and only negotiating, if at all, over the price at which they
would willingly refrain from selling their technology to countries like Iran or
to terrorist organizations. For this reason, says Yun, it only makes sense that
Asia's proud new nuclear power recently announced its official withdrawal from
the so-called Six-Party Talks in Beijing,
instead insisting that it will only negotiate bilaterally with the United Statesfrom now on.
Talks, under which the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan
have negotiated a possible end to the North Korean nuclear program since 2003,
had in fact only two beneficiaries: host China, which has set itself apart as
the leading Asian power, and, of course, Kim Jong Il, who used the talks to
gain valuable time to pursue his nuclear ambitions.
Beijing could face dire consequences for having
so generously allowed its ally Kim Jong Il to pursue his agenda. Pyongyang's recent nuclear test can only encourage China's archrival Japanto expand its satellite-supported missile defense system -- a missile shield
that is also directed against an increasingly powerful China.
Sliding Back into
the Cold War
situation is also complicated by the fact that the hostile brothers on the
Korean peninsula are sliding back into the tensions of the Cold War. Even the
suicide of former South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, 62, who jumped off a
cliff on May 23, is consistent with this picture.
Kim Dae Jung is
still shocked over this act of desperation by a man who shared his political
views. Roh had felt driven into a corner by his involvement in a corruption
affair. But he must have also been deeply disconcerted over the ruling
conservative government's relentless efforts to dismantle his policy of
détente. During his term in office, Roh spent billions of dollars to support
But now Lee Myung
Bak, 67, is in charge at the Blue House, as the presidential residence in Seoul is called. As the
CEO of the Hyundai Group, Lee's methods earned him the nickname
"Bulldozer," and he is now taking a similarly surly approach to Pyongyang. Instead of
continuing to supply the "Dear Leader" with rice and fertilizer, Lee
is demanding clear guarantees over the use of aid, as well as quid pro quos
like the abandonment of North
Korea's nuclear program.
Null and Void
South Korea's "Bulldozer" has garnered support for his hard-line policies,
and not just among his political supporters. Sympathy for Pyongyang among South Koreans plunged last
year after a visitor from the south was shot dead by a guard in the North
Korean vacation enclave Kumgangsan. The incident prompted Seoul to suspend the joint tourism project.
Now Pyongyang, for its part, is threatening to scrap the
second symbol of national reconciliation, the Kaesongindustrial park in North
Korea. At the park, less than an
hour-and-a-half's drive from Seoul,
capitalists from the south have shoes and suits made by the subjects of the
"Dear Leader" -- at about one-tenth the wages they pay at home. North Korea has declared all agreements relating
to Kaesong to
be null and void. Sunshine policy proponent Kim Dae Jung was one of the key
organizers of this capitalist experiment.
But dictator Kim
Jong Il currently appears to be more interested in the survival of his dynasty
than in any hard currency from the south. He wants to close his own ranks and
curb ideological influences from the south. He is believed to have ordered the
execution last year of Choe Sung Chol, a senior official in charge of relations
with Seoul and
seen in the north as a strong advocate of rapprochement.
As dismal as these
signs are, South Korea's
"Willy Brandt" refuses to relinquish is optimism. Kim Dae Jung firmly
believes that US President
Obama will ultimately have no choice but to negotiate with Pyongyang. He is also convinced that the United States and Chinawill convince Seoulto reinstall the sunshine policy for the north. In the end, says Kim, North
Korea will give up its nuclear program after
the German by Christopher Sultan