By Rajeev Sharma
The death of North Korean leader Kim Jung Il, who inherited power in 1994 from his father Kim Il Sung who founded the nation in 1948, is of immense importance. Announced on December 19, two days after Kim’s death on board a moving train due to heart attack, the development has the potential of changing the regional power matrix in Asia — and indeed the world.
There are numerous reasons underscoring the importance of North Korea in international affairs. One, North Korea is a self-declared nuclear weapon state. It had declared its nuclear status at a time in 2003 when the United States was finding pretexts to declare war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for his alleged sins of omission and commission – a move which could have been initiated for deliberately deflecting Washington’s ever-increasing attention on Iraq. North Korea had a vested interest in the continuance of the Saddam Hussein regime in view of their close ties in the covert nuclear weaponisation programme.
Two, North Korea has been to China for decades what Israel has been for the United States and what the Soviet Union satellites in the Eastern Europe were for the Soviets. It is public knowledge that North Korea has had just one friend since its inception 63 years ago: China. For this reason, Pyongyang’s importance to the world cannot be under-stated as China is not only the second biggest world economy but is also an emerging superpower out to challenge the sole superpower — the United States.
Three, North Korea also represents the future area of international diplomatic coups as far as the US-led West is concerned. At a time when the US has in the recent past opened secret channel of talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, has dangled the diplomatic rose to Iran many a time, has taken its relations with Myanmar, once a foe, to another level by sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Naypyidaw recently, and is even negotiating an India-type civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Vietnam, North Korea may represent the last frontier for the American diplomacy.
The question before the strategic community of the world is how soon the US diplomacy will touch base with the North Koreans directly, leaving aside the six-nation structural format tried for last several years. This is a diplomatic hurly-burly that may well unravel in near future, probably in 2012. There are already signals that the North Koreans want to liberate themselves from the suffocating tight embrace of China – something that Myanmar has done just recently and another thorn in the Americans’ side, Iran, may well do in near future. This is international geopolitics at its pragmatic best.
China, of course, will be watching the unfolding developments in and about North Korea with bated breath as any direct contacts between the US and North Korea will be as resounding a diplomatic defeat to the Chinese as the suddenly improving relations between the US and Myanmar. Even during the life time of Kim Jung Il a debate had started whether it was wise for the North Koreans to keep all their eggs in one basket: China. It will be interesting to see how Kim’s successor, his 28-year-old third son Kim Jung Un, is going to deal with the US.
That said India’s interests in North Korea cannot be over-emphasized. The Indian interests in North Korea have to begin and end with China. It is China, after all, that has been pursuing a “string of pearls” strategy vis a vis India – a strategy of encircling India. China’s close strategic friends are well known, all of whom have been nations like Pakistan, Myanmar and North Korea. Pakistan is currently in a snake pit, has a rapidly deteriorating economy and a tinder box political situation domestically. Myanmar has suffered UN sanctions for decades and has been an iron country for decades sitting in the kangaroo pouch of China. Now Myanmar is showing signs of liberating itself from the clutches of the Chinese and has hosted Hillary Clinton recently. This leaves out only the North Koreans from the list of trusted and tested friends of the Chinese in half a century. If North Korea were to extend an olive branch to the Americans, a scenario that is not unlikely, it will bring the Chinese cup of strategic woes to the brim. And the Indians would not be complaining!
But before all this happens, it is of utmost importance that there is no power struggle in North Korea and the North Korean army throws all its weight behind the new power wielder Kim Jung Un. It is too early to certify that the new leader has firmly entrenched itself in North Korea. Like anywhere else in the world, the first and foremost task for the new leader on North Korea would be to establish himself as the sole undisputed scion of the Kim dynasty and leader of North Korea.
Once Kim Jung Un does so, it will be interesting to see whether the young leader continues with the policies of his father who was his nation’s very last protagonist of the Cold War era or whether he opts to open a small window to the West. This possibility will keep the Chinese strategists on the edge.
However, this may only be in the realm of future that is uncertain and far away. Real politik will inevitably push the young and inexperienced Kim Il Un to first stabilize and consolidate his home turf and the foreign policy issues will have to take a back seat for quite some time. Nonetheless, there has been a change in the leadership of a volatile country in India’s eastern neighbourhood and India will do well to start anew with Pyongyang. It was quite a shocker to see that the Ministry of External Affairs maintained a stony silence for over 24 hours on the death of Kim Jung Il. But fortunately Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made amends by expressing his condolences over the death, albeit after a long gap.