TCS Daily


Bush Gets Machiavellian on Pyongyang

By Alexander Monro - January 6, 2004 12:00 AM

It is strange to hear of goings-on in Pyongyang. The city features all the kitsch propaganda of an isolated but cocky regime. Mass rallies and military displays recently marked the birthday of the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il. The pariah state appears still militant and unpredictable, although special economic zones now buck the political trend.

Chinese analysts and government officials argue that US President George Bush's rhetoric and hard line stance have endangered the whole Asia-Pacific region. Certainly Pentagon officials haven't helped matters and the impasse of 2002 upped the ante. Yet it could have been precisely the ingredient needed to bring the North into line.

Not As Insane As They Appear

The DPRK's leaders are not as insane as they may appear. Instead, like so many pariah states with vast challenges, they'll do all they can to find the largest handout and develop weapons if it helps their cause. And Pyongyang has done a fairly good job of securing US aid, thanks to a Clinton administration keen to engage, if only for safety's sake.

Bush's policy, so lambasted by much of the media, has certainly been far less accommodating. His first move was to renounce the regime as part of an "axis of evil" and thus set up the US as the regime's enemy. Whilst this sparked some angry statements from Pyongyang, it failed to lead to the disasters sometimes predicted.

Furthermore, it put a large question mark over China's policy, which has generally been to stall any progress. China enjoys the closest relationship with Kim Jong-Il's regime (excepting perhaps Russia), a relic of its Korean War sympathies, when Chinese soldiers drove US troops from the Chinese border down to the 32nd parallel, today's North-South border. Yet the onus was suddenly on China to prove that it too wants a resolution to the crisis.

Unification will of course mean far more power for the South in any new administration. This would extend US influence and leave China backpedaling. Despite occasional Chinese claims that it is the US, not China, that opposes unity on the peninsula, it is clear that China remains worried about US influence in Asia-Pacific.

But China is concerned about North Korea's nuclear program too. How involved it has been in sharing military intelligence and technology to Pyongyang is hard to tell. But we do know that North Korea is armed to the teeth and might use its weapons if push comes to shove. Any policy should assume a nuclear capacity, and the Chinese administration is desperate to keep the regional peace, primarily for economic reasons.

The Clinton policy of engagement failed. North Korea made no significant attempt to close down any weapons programs and instead sought to line its pockets and fill its granaries through promises it wouldn't keep. Pyongyang claims payments weren't on time or complete. Who reneged on the deal first is disputed, but given recent DPRK claims over nuclear capacity there is little reason to believe it ever kept its side of the bargain.

The Chinese are now playing a constructive role, recently cutting off the fuel supply to North Korea when Pyongyang refused to agree to six-way talks. Three days later talks were back on.

Last year North Korea had agreed to put its nuclear program on ice, subject to concessions from President Bush. Yet he refused, arguing that the North must completely end its programs before progress could be made.

It may therefore come as a surprise that last weekend Xinhua News Agency, effectively an organ of the Chinese state, announced that a Chinese delegate was currently in Pyongyang to persuade the DPRK to agree to six-way talks in January. In the new year, North Korea agreed to let a US team tour its Yongbon nuclear facility. A top nuclear scientist -- Sig Hecker -- will be included in the delegation.

The initial message to Pyongyang may yet prove to have been the driving force behind a resolution. For the military state to ensure more "jaw-jaw" than "war-war" it has had to begin to bend. If President Bush was never serious about war, he wasn't about to let the Koreans know it.

And a formerly unlikely alliance -- between the US and China -- also means North Korea has fewer friends to turn to. Russia is hard to predict, but may want to stay away given its domestic hot potatoes. South Korea and Japan will both be pushing hard for a peaceful resolution, though Japan will need to keep a lower profile having upset the Koreans last time round.

Machiavelli and the Professor

I doubt President Bush has read much Salman Rushdie or, for that matter, Machiavelli. But Professor Salik Molanka, in Rushdie's latest novel, Fury, gave a Machiavellian proposition that sounds not a million miles from Bush's policy. The Professor explains, "Men are less hesitant about harming someone who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared. Because love is held together by a chain of obligation which, since men are a sorry lot, is broken on every occasion in which their own self-interest is concerned; but fear is held together by a dread of punishment which will never abandon you."

I suspect President Bush understands Kim Jong-Il better than his critics claim. The politics of fear may yet triumph where the politics of friendship failed.


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