Russian chess (part 1) – Tim Beal on Kim Jong Il’s visit to Russia

Tim Beal, author of Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War, writes about the relationship between North Korean and Russia, and what this means for the wider geo-political order, including Barack Obama’s foreign policy:

The visit of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to Russia in August 2011 received little attention in the international media, and most of the articles were uninformed. As is often the case, the South Korean media provided the best coverage.  The North Korean and Russian media gave little detail and scant analysis.  China was a bit better but tended to focus on the Six Party Talks, highlighting Kim (and Medvedev’s) commitment to resuming the talks without preconditions.  This is understandable, given that the establishment of the Beijing talks, bringing together the two Koreas, and the major world powers –the US, Japan, Russia, and China – was a great achievement.  Too great perhaps.  It was noticeable how quickly the US used the Cheonan Incident in March 2010 to sink the talks.  It is likely that the Obama administration realised that Bush had made a great strategic mistake in giving this diplomatic jewel to China and was glad of a pretext to let the talks wither.

In any case, Kim’s avowed commitment to the talks was not new; it restated statements made on visits to China, most recently in May,  and was consistent with long-standing North Korean policy.  The US, and South Korean, response was the same as before – no talks without preconditions.  It is an old diplomatic technique; if you don’t want negotiations you merely set preconditions the other side cannot accept without forfeiting their objective for negotiating. It was a common feature of US strategy during the Bush administration. Obama was supposed to change all that:

… when asked in a July 23, 2008 presidential primary debate, “Would you be willing to meet separately, without preconditions, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?” candidate Obama replied, “I would.”

But President Obama is, as we well know now, not the same person as Candidate Obama.

However, the main problem with most of the media coverage was that it looked in the wrong direction and asked the wrong questions.  Too often the focus was on Kim Jong Il rather than Medvedev, on North Korea rather than on Russia.  It ascribed far too much freedom of action to Kim, a mistake that permeates discussion on North Korea and a subject to be taken up some other time.  It portrayed Kim as the active initiator and Medvedev as the passive and compliant host. In fact, a summit only takes place because both sides want it, and the bigger country has the stronger hand in determining that. There have been rumours  in the past of an impending visit by Kim to Russia which have not eventuated.  It may be that there have been requests since Kim’s previous visit in 2002, but only this time has Moscow said yes.

Kim’s reasons for the Russia visit are easy to discern. North Korea needs to develop commercial linkages with Russia to circumvent US-led sanctions which have such a devastating effect on its economy.  It also needs Russia as an economic and political counterbalance to China.  North Korea’s overdependence on China is increasingly evident. At the same time Kim does not want to alienate China so it was significant that he returned to Korea via China, significantly meeting with Dai Bingguo, China’s leading official for Korean affairs.

Crisis in Korea

America, China and the Risk of War

Tim Beal

Balanced and deeply informed study of the increasingly volatile relations between North and South Korea and US concern about the rise of China.

£19.99 only £17.50 on the Pluto site

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