There are some unexpected developments in northeast Asia after North Korea’s saber rattling and belligerent rhetoric following its missile launch in December 2012 and nuclear test in February 2013, followed by fresh UN sanctions in March. All these raised the specter of a major conflict erupting in the Korean peninsula. In May, a couple of developments took place which have kept analysts busy trying to decipher their triggers and implications. Are these a sign of hope or of messier things to come?
The first was the dispatch of Isao Ijima, a senior advisor to Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, on a secret mission to Pyongyang to talk about the abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s by North Korean agents. While this indicated cracks in international efforts to maintain unity in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, thereby making the future of the Six-Party-Talks (SPT) more complicated, this displeased the US and South Korea but pleased Beijing.
For Abe, the kidnappings have been “a long-standing and reliable political capital”. He has promised the families of the abductees that bringing them back to Japan is one of his biggest personal missions. Pyongyang would demand rewards for any breakthrough, even to provide proof of the abductees’ death. Abe will not hesitate to pay huge undisclosed money, which will only further Pyongyang’s nuke program. The US will surely be dismayed but with elections to the Upper House due in July 2013,
Abe does not want to miss the opportunity to gain maximum political mileage. His long-term plan is to amend Article 9 of the Constitution and the first step is to obtain two-third majority in the Upper House, thereby enabling him to first amend Article 96 and remove the two-third majority clause, replacing it with a simple majority clause. Thus, Japan’s regional diplomacy goes for a toss as domestic priority gains precedence. The implications of Abe’s move on the US and South Korea cannot be missed.
The other is the positive spin displayed by Kim Jong-un by dispatching a special envoy, Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, to China after Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a strongly worded appeal that North Korea rejoin the SPT that were abandoned in 2009 when North Korea walked out over disagreements on how to verify steps the North was meant to take to end its nuclear programs. North Korea has a history of raising tensions in an attempt to push its adversaries to negotiations meant to win aid.
Kim’s decision to send the envoy was to assuage the Chinese feeling of hurt. He therefore sent a personal letter to Xi referring to the deep friendship between the two allies that “cannot be exchanged for anything”. In Beijing, Choe made no mention about the SPT. But Beijing would want the SPT to be resumed as it feels heightening of tensions by Pyongyang have contributed to the US stepping up its presence. From Pyongyang’s perspective, sending Choe showed that the North was rattled by the prospect of China moving towards its prime adversaries in future.
There are further developments in the coming days and months. President Barack Obama and Xi are due to meet in California in early June, their first encounter since Xi assumed the presidency. Deterring Pyongyang from the path of nuclear development, including nuclear test and firing of missiles, is certain to be one of the topics. Then South Korean President Park Geun-hye will later visit Beijing. Park can get on well in business talks. Kim will surely be displeased.
There is another view that is doing the rounds. It is being speculated that Choe’s visit was possibly to set up a visit by Kim and it had little to do with repairing the troubled relations between China and North Korea. It is possible that Choe sought some humanitarian assistance, which Beijing had cut to punish its unruly ally. However, Beijing is unlikely to back its ally so long as there is a fundamental split on the question of halting the nuclear program. Beijing did not take kindly the fact tha Choe failed to take Xi’s lead on the SPT during their meeting. Beijing is unlikely to welcome Kim Jong-un unless denuclearization figures in the agenda. Even if Beijing agrees to welcome Kim, he is unlikely to get the kind of pomp that Park’s state visit to Beijing will receive, further annoying Pyongyang.
Does this mean that China has the final say on the future of SPT? Not really. Even if Kim complies with Beijing’s demands and keeps the issue of denuclearization on the agenda in order to make his Beijing sojourn possible, the resumption of the SPT will still not be that easy as the US and South Korea would insist on a pledge from North Korea that it would renounce nuclear weapons as a condition for resuming the talks, a demand the North has so far rejected. Pressure will then mount on Kim to cooperate more fully with China. But whether Pyongyang will really make any meaningful concessions remains in the realm of the unknown.