With the successful launching of its three-stage rocket on last December, North Korean earned the status of 10th member of the world’s prestigious space club. It has also provided two major advantages to the young leader of the most reclusive communist regime of the world. One was the high level of confidence that Kim Jong –un achieved in securing internal unity for his dynastic rule and the other was his increased bargaining power against its neighbors – especially the South Korea and China in gaining the much needed economic assistance for one of the most impoverished countries – in the neighborhood of greatest economic success stories.
On January first – following the controversial rocket launch, South Korea’s largest news agency-Yonhap published a news report about the dramatic New Year’s message of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and that according to the agency marked the first such message verbally in 19 years. The message read by the young North Korean leader through radio and television exhibited his rare found self-confidence in making such announcement.
In the message broadcasted by the North Korean radio and television Kim called for the efforts to resolve the outstanding tension between the two countries by following the joint declarations and initiate economic reform basically in agriculture and light industries.
Kim further broadened his pristine gesture by shaking hands with diplomatic envoys and representatives of international organizations that indicated his willingness in “ushering in the era of great prosperity”.
Furthermore, in a report published on December 28, the Korea-U.S. Institute at John’s Hopkins University said that in a given situation North Korea is in a position to test its nuclear weapon within two weeks.
According to New York Times it was a “fundamental breakthrough” and a “resounding achievement” that showed the main elements of an intercontinental ballistic missile that to some experts can hit its precise target.
The intent of the message of the mysterious country is yet to be analyzed, but the tenth member of the world’s Space Club might have prudently kicked off its new strategy to pacify the shocked and possibly strong reactions from other major powers including United Nations.
John Cherian in an Indian fortnightly – Frontline, admits that the successful launch of a North Korean satellite on December 12 is being generally interpreted as a message by Pyongyang to the international community that it is determined to chart its own course despite the decades of Western sanctions and military threats.
Two Koreas and two Great Paradoxes
John F. Kennedy – one of the most popular American Presidents once told his advisers: “Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.”
Kennedy is more relevant today than to his time. The world today has become more and more dangerous when compared to his presidency (1960-1963). To the chagrin of many foreign policy analyst , East Asian countries for their foreign policy have undergone a much precarious conflict situation as defined by Kennedy. The nature of relations among them – China, Koreas and Japan – the world’s second, third and 12th largest economies as well as the major global military powers, have imparted a common message that the strategic flashpoints discernible in the region may easily turn into a global nightmares.
Noted American writer and political analyst- Phyllis Schlafly, says that the successful launching of North Korean three-stage rocket that can deliver a payload in orbit around the globe and if North Korea explodes a single nuclear weapon a hundred miles above the United States, it “ could create electromagnetic pulse effects, thereby bringing our entire economy to a standstill”. As a result of this, United States for many months will have to live without electricity, communication system, transportation, banking facility and almost all critical infrastructure systems will fail.
She further mentions that it would be “like a return to the 18th century. But we no longer have the agrarian society that supported Americans in those olden days because we now import the majority of our food”. With its ballistic missiles when combined with nuclear or chemical weapons, any enemy country without an air force or military can project power outside of its borders and threaten the United States, Schlafly admits. Evidently when North Korea has gained such ability against United States that is 10,277 kilometers away, the impact of such explosion in South Korea and Japan is beyond imagination.
Robert M. Gates in January 2011, when visiting Beijing as a secretary of defense and speaking to reporters had said that North Korea was “becoming a direct threat to the United States within the next five years”.
Henry Kissinger says that the international order of Asia resembles the nineteenth century Europe and one such example is Korea that “has been a focal point of Asian crisis for the last hundred years”. Although Korean peninsula lies within the geo-strategic orbit of China, the nature of two rival political and economic systems pursued by Koreas and their strategic dependence upon China and United States for their ultimate survival have turned the peninsula one of the most critical strategic hotspots of our time.
The North and South Koreas: officially known as Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Republic of Korea (ROK) – one is among the most impoverished country of the world and the other has the reputation of becoming an economic powerhouse of the world and a vibrant democracy as well. Both these countries have taught the world is that how leadership and policy matters when it means total deprivation of the people as well as their pride and prosperity. Moreover, both countries in inheritance to the cold war situation are living with much troubled relationship and apparently are prepared to meet any untoward challenges bred out of their two antagonistic socio-political and economic way of life.
And this in turn has been a constant source of anxiety to both countries. Simultaneously, the North’s relation with China and South’s relations with United States have given the nature of relationship between North and South Korea a critical global dimension.
These days few countries in world can be compared with South Korea – clearly for its amazing economic success and a powerful democracy. As a highly industrious and productive people committed to democratic ideals – South Koreans have achieved these two greatest miracles within a short span of time. Mainly it was possible for their visionary leaders and their great love and devotion to their country. But unfortunately the North Korean people were not fortunate to have the such leaders and have been living under the dire level of deprivation that is beyond imagination to many people in the world.
Success and Failures of Countries depend upon the Quality of their Leadership
Sir Arthur Lewis, the father of development economist when was at Princeton University, was asked a pertinent question by one of his promising student – ‘why do some developing countries grow faster than others?’ Professor Lewis, a 1979 Noble Laureate responded that two things are mainly responsible for this. The first is the great leadership, and the second- the good policies. When there are great leaders and good policies rapid growth follows.
Countries are great not for their size of the geography, population, economy army or weaponry, but for the vision of their leadership, their capacity and courage in tapping the resources available and making the best possible use of opportunities available to them.
South Korea, indubitably has confirmed what Sir Arthur Lewis said. When Park Chung -hee took reins of the government through a military coup in 1961, the country was in ruins. That time it was one of the poorest countries in the world – with per capita income just around US $87. And when he was assassinated in 1989 it had reached US $4,830 and now it is above US$ 31,000. But even the most liberal estimate North Korean per capita income accounts below US $ 1000.
Indeed Park ruled his country with firm hand – with a dictatorial stance. But there are few leaders – compared to Park who is truer to the cause of their people and the nation. Among the crowd of so many inattentive and unaccountable so called democracies of that time, he had proved himself as one of the most attentive and reputed leader, who if had exhibited some sort of weakness and if instability was further allowed to continue in his country, there was every possibility that South Korea would have collapsed and would have inevitably fallen under the control of North Korea it as in South Vietnam fell down in 70s.
Eminent philosopher, physicist and noble laureate Ilya Prigogine has said “we cannot predict future, but we can prepare it“. In other word great leaders with unlimited courage and will power create future with their own hands. Proving himself true to Prigogine, Park reinvented his country – from a poor crumbling state to an Asian tiger within a period of 18 years. It was a miracle in world’s economic history. And the great Korean people pursuing his path to prosperity have invented one of the most powerful democracies in the world – on the economic foundation created by Park.
When South Korea was created many in United States and United Nations considered it as an impossible country to survive when compared to North. North Korea then was in a far better position for its strong industrial infrastructure, possession of heavy industries and abundance of natural resources – mainly iron, coal, copper, lead, uranium and manganese – that accounted about 90 percent of Korean peninsula. Similar was the case with hydroelectricity and forest resources. However, South Korea was creeping mainly with its agrarian economy without any natural resources to start with. It was a country ruined by war, shattered by partition and devastated by people’s anger and deep despair. The North somehow was rallied under the leadership of Kim IL Sung – for more than a decade. The North had far more stronger military and advanced weapons when compared to South. Moreover, South Korea was reeling under weak, instable and battered leadership and had Park not intervened many anticipated it would have collapsed.
Bad leaders and bad policies cause poverty and famines in their countries. Noble Laureate Amartya Sen, in his path breaking study on “Poverty and Famine – An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation” (1981) and another book written with Jean Drèze on “Hunger and Public Action” (1989) has made a detailed account on the famines of Bengal, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and other Sahel region countries and have concluded that famines, hunger and poverty are not the result of shortage of food supply or its availability, but for the inability of person to acquire food and other commodities within the prevailing economic, social and legal arrangement denying people entitlements and ownership rights.
Dr. Sen., in his acclaimed work “Development as Freedom” in more unequivocal terms, has mentioned that there is connection between poverty, famines and nature of government. Famines have never killed rulers and ruling elites, neither are they ever accountable for that. But when there is freedom, democracy and independent press, rulers are penalized for such catastrophes. So are famines like situations effectively prevented.
Therefore, the main contributing factors that cause poverty and other human deprivation are the kind of leaderships and the kind of economy whether it is in North Korea, Ethiopia, Somalia or Nepal. What else could be expected from the kind of autocracies that spends more money on the arms , ammunitions followed by most expensive missiles and nuclear programs with one of the largest standing army in the world – under the policy of ‘military first’ . An autocratic regime raises such a huge army not to protect people but to protect the rulers and their odd yearning as in case of North Korea.
Messages of Park Geun- hye’e election in South Korea
Newly elected President of South Korea Park Geun – hye, during her election campaign had vowed to improve the relations with North, hold a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and look for ways to make huge economic investments across the 38th parallel to build trust and gain long term peace – that ultimately would make the unification of Korean people possible in the long run – although bleak at the time being.
And Kim Jong-un in his new year’s message and with follow up media highlights signaled Park that he is receptive to her mission that she announced during her election campaign, however he had defied the South Korean and world community’s pleas for rocket launch.
When Korean people elected Park Geun – hye as their new president – they conferred four messages at the same time. One – they love Park Chung-hee – one of the greatest leaders of the last century who within a period of 18 years transformed his country from rags to riches – amazingly unparallel achievement in human history till that time. Two, they love their democracy – one of the most powerful in the world. The third message they imparted was that they wanted United States continue to play major strategic role in the region. And the fourth was that they supported Park Geun – hye to initiate some solid ground work for the unification of Korea – that would comparatively be easier to her – for the strong support base she enjoyed in the establishment and among general public due to the resounding economic success that senior Park ensured for their country.
Similarly, when South Korean people in an election held in last December elected his daughter – Park Geun-hye as the new president of their country – they not only demonstrated their high regard for father Park, they have also exhibited high regards for the patriotic character of daughter Park that was first learnt with her spontaneous utterance when she heard the murder of her father in 1979. On October 26 of that year, when she was informed about the assassination of the incumbent President – Park Chung-hee by his own intelligence Chief, the first question she asked was – ‘was the border with North Korea safe’ ? She stood similarly bold when in August 1974 her mother was killed by a North Korean agent when an attempt was made on her father. Later again on 20 May 2006, when Park Geun-hye herself was attacked in Seoul by an assailant she suffered one-to-three centimeters deep cuts to her face from ear to jaw that required 60 stitches. And her first remarks after the attack was, “I am all right. Don’t overreact “.
Contrary to the highly developed South, North Korea is living with the greatest paradoxes of our time –a nuclear powered nation with the largest standing army in one of the most poverty ridden and a kind of famine infested countries – with millions without food and other basic amenities of life with the most dismal 0.9 percent growth rate. And if South Korea finds ways to share some of its great fortune with its less fortunate brethren in the North and in return buys peace and in the long run unification of the Korean people, it would greatly contribute peace in part of Asia where major global powers like United States, China, Japan and Russia have claimed greater stakes.
Korean Peninsula: Strategic Key in one of the Most Significant Geo-Strategic Region of the World
At the end of World War II, when Moscow and Washington failed to agree on the future of the peninsula – formerly occupied by Japan; Korea was split in to two parts and two separate countries with different socio- political system were established.
Following the end of three years long Korean War on July 27, 1953 after the military commanders of North Korea, the Chinese Peoples’ Volunteers and the United Nations Command entered into an armistice agreement at Panmunjom; a 2.5-mile-wide buffer zone known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ) was created across the thirty-eighth parallel.
Korean peninsula has a great strategic significance as it is shared by major economic and military powers of the North East and South East Asian Geo-strategic Region – the part of greater Asia – Pacific Rim, bordering continental powers like China and Russia and lying between Korean Bay- Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan. All those make it a ‘grand geopolitical centre’ of the world.
The turbulent relations between two Koreas reached at lowest ebb in March 2010 when North Korea torpedoed a South Korean navy ship and killed some five dozen crew members. In May 2011, North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire after the North shelled an island near their disputed sea border, killing at least two South Korean marines, setting dozens of buildings ablaze and sending civilians fleeing for shelter.
In November 2009 too, two navies fought a brief gun battle that left one North Korean sailor dead and three others wounded. A North Korean ship was left in flames.
In August 2011 AFP reported that the North Korea had sent some secret agents to assassinate its defense minister Kim Kwan-Jin.
But after years of tensed relations North Korea now seems intending to improve its relations with the South. Focused specially on the new South Korean president’s policy of building trust with the North, the North Korean leader has given the impression that it is reciprocating the South’s overtures.
Similarly, China – the only country having good ties with North Korea has been putting adequate pressures to improve its strained relations with the United States and South Korea.
If tension is eased in Korean peninsula and South Korean investments in North Korea are increased it could help North Korea go stabilized and that would obviously help China achieve its aim of keeping South Korean and American forces out of its first chain of geo-strategic border region. And China without any underestimation knows the hard fact that unless North Korea categorically abandons its nuclear weapons ambition; it would give United States additional impetus to deploy more anti missiles facilities to the region facing North Korean and Chinese nuclear arsenals.
When crisis erupts in Korea Russia will be similarly threatened. Robert Kagan – the noted foreign policy expert of USA, in his acclaimed book – The Return of History and the End of Dreams, has stated that “if Russia was where History most dramatically ended two decades ago. Today it is where history has most dramatically returned”. And according to Kagan Russia ranks among the strongest power of the world – its economy growing by 7 percent from 2003 is showing a remarkable improvement.
And if normalcy returns in Korea and East Asia, Russia would make a dramatic return as a fuel supplier to world’s highly developed economies of South Korea and Japan. During the North Korean President Kim Jong IL’s visit to Moscow in August 2011, the first since 2002, both presidents discussed about how to promote their mutual economic and political interests.
According to New York Times (August 21, 2011) for years, officials in Moscow and Seoul have been urging North Korea to let the two countries build a pipeline through the North Korean territory to carry Russian natural oil and gas to meet the rising demand in South Korea and even Japan by which North Korea can earn $500 million a year in transit fees.
Likewise, the two Koreas and Russia have also been exploring the extension of Trans-Siberian Railway through the North into the South and construction of a high-voltage power lines to sell surplus Russian electricity to North and South Koreas that would ultimately help Russia develop its sparsely populated Far Eastern region. Senior Russian and North Korean officials have agreed to work on such projects and enhance greater cooperation involving energy and railways among Russia and two Korea.
If Russia’s huge oil and natural gas reserves find market in East Asia that will not only give Russia greater power leverage, it will boost East Asian economy that resultantly, will enlarge regional peace and cooperation. This will also help China improve its relation with South Korea and Japan giving more rooms for bilateral trade.
But before such mega projects on oil and gas pipelines are initiated; economic and security related risks are to be analyzed and better trust building structural environment be created among the parties through long term treaties governing the smooth supply of oil and gas under stronger international assurances.
About the author: Keshav Prasad Bhattarai
Keshav Prasad Bhattarai is the former President of Nepal Teachers’ Association,Teachers’ Union of Nepal and General Secretary of SAARC Teachers’ Federation.
He writes for Eurasia Review. Earlier he worked as a columnist in an English language weekly from Nepal – ‘The Reporter’ and Rajdhani – a Nepali language daily. Before that as a freelancer, he wrote for different Nepali newspapers.
For his long association with national and international trade union movement, he usually prepares concept papers on educational issues, economic development, trade union movement and democratic development for different organizations in Nepal from the perspective of teachers’ trade union but in a critical way.
Keshav Prasad Bhattarai has also authored three books -- two of them are about Nepal's Relations with India and one on educational issues.