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Geopolitics

How Kim Jong Il’s Legacy Looks Across The Border In China

Analysis: The death of North Korea's Kim Jong-Il opens major questions for his nation and the region. During his 16 years in power, the supreme leader -- pushed by President Bush's 'axis of evil' showdown - achieved nuc

Kim Jong-Il earlier this year (Wikipedia)
Kim Jong-Il earlier this year (Wikipedia)
Cheng Xiaohe

BEIJING - The death of Kim Jong-Il, the supreme leader of North Korea, leaves many open questions for both the country and the region. After 16 years in power, it is worth breaking down his legacy into its three central component parts.

Legacy #1: A nuclear North Korea
It was during the rule of Kim Il-Sung, founder of North Korea and Kim Jong-Il's father, that the country began its quest for nuclear weapons. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea's desire to achieve security with nuclear weapons became more urgent.

Still, in December 1991, under international pressure, the two Koreas issued a joint declaration on denuclearization, and promised not to test, manufacture, produce, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons, and not to own reprocessing and uranium enrichment equipment.

After a series of intricate diplomatic battles, North Korea also signed a 1994 accord with a "freeze in return for compensation," as its core content. It agreed to halt activity in, and eventually eliminate, its nuclear facilities while the United States agreed to construct a light-water reactor (LWR) as well as providing heavy oil.

After Kim Jong-Il came to power, US-North Korea relations at first improved, and the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright even paid a visit to Pyongyang. But the normalization of the two countries' relations progressed no further, and the promise of the U.S. provisions of heavy oil and the LWR would fizzle.

When President George W. Bush, the infamous and intrepid conservative, came to power in 2001, US-North Korea relations became even more strained. President Bush talked about the "Axis of Evil," and invoked the threat of North Korea resuming its nuclear quest. Due to a major change in China's attitude towards North Korea's nuclear issue, the discussions between America and North Korea were upgraded to six-party talks that included South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

The six countries signed a joint "9.19 Statement" in 2005 indicating that North Korea would abandon all existing nuclear weapons program. Yet, soon afterwards, North Korea went ahead to test its first nuclear device in 2006, and the second one in 2009.

While non-proliferation became the global trend, Kim Jong-Il moved in the opposite direction. His motivations were three-fold. First, it was his expression of his disappointment in the six-party talks, which he doubted would benefit North Korea. Second, the US showed no signs of changing its hostility towards North Korea, which therefore needed to go nuclear to deter the Americans. Third, the balance of power on the Korean peninsula had tilted in favor of South Korea, so the North needed nuclear weapons to rebalance it.

Kim Jong-Il spent most of his time and energy, using all his wits, on the nuclear issue. However, the painstakingly acquired nuclear device brought little security. Left instead were lingering troubles with its southern neighbor, and distress for North Korea and the entire region.

Legacy #2: A poor North Korea
In the 1960s and 1970s North Korea was a richer country than China. Even South Korea was lagging behind in certain economic indicators.

But the huge changes in Russia and Eastern Europe triggered huge losses for North Korea. Not only did the economic and military aid from these countries fade away, but the exports to them that the North relied on to survive also plunged as global trade dynamics were transformed. Barter trade was replaced by cash trade. While China's trade with South Korea now surpasses $200 billion, it is a mere $3 billion with the North.

North Korea is a mountainous country with little land for cultivation. Since its founding 60 years ago, it has yet to achieve food self-sufficiency. Poor flood control facilities and the climate do not help either. Moreover, because of its low industrial capability and a foreign exchange shortfall, it does not even have the ability to produce or import fertilizer. In comparison with China, it has very low crop yields.

Kim Jong-Il established the goal just before his death that the year 2012 would be the year of "a strong country opening its door", and aimed to achieve a breakthrough in the production of steel, textiles, and fertilizer. But looking at it from its current situation, as long as North Korea still insists on its "Military First" policy and a planned economy, it's hard to see how its door can be opened easily. Earlier in October, the United Nations Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, declared that 6 million people in North Korea face hunger, and the country is in desperate need of international assistance.

Legacy #3: A solitary North Korea
Diplomacy during the Kim Il-Sung era was more active. Though its relations with the Soviet Union and China experienced ups and downs through the 1960s, it was able to maneuver between the two intimidating neighbors through the 1970s and 1980s. In addition, it joined the "Non-aligned 77 countries block" in 1975, so the international community was able to hear its voice frequently. In 1991, it even entered the United Nations, and could thereafter express its demands and make friends on a larger and wider stage.

It was after the first nuclear test that North Korea's diplomatic situation deteriorated precipitously. Many countries which were originally friendly with it became alienated. As a country traditionally friendly to North Korea, China was also obliged to severely condemn its behavior and join other countries in supporting UN sanctions. Though there has been improvement in the two countries' relations recently, the nuclear problem has always been what is obstructing the further development of relations between North Korea and China.

There are 163 countries with which North Korea has diplomatic relations. Yet with very few does it conduct real normal trade. In the Pyongyang Autumn International Trade Fair last year and its Spring International Commodity Show, the vast majority of companies present were Chinese and Taiwanese. This demonstrates just how isolated it is.

Although it has been moving forward in reform and openness, the pace remains quite slow. In comparison, it's lagging behind Vietnam, and even the once complacent Cuba. Kim Jong-Il had tried to break the diplomatic isolation though the re-starting of the six-party talks, but because of the reality of the confrontation between the two Koreas, and the complications of the nuclear issue, the talks have up to now failed to recommence.

A final point worth noting: North Korea remains one of just a handful of countries in the world that imposes restrictions on international visitors. Prior to entry of the country, the visitor is explicitly reminded of the state of things: "Do not talk nonsense," visitors are warned. "Do not take pictures without authorization. Otherwise you may be arrested!"

Read the original article in Chinese

photo - Wikipedia

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