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Lee’s North Korea Gambit

The South Korean leader seems to be trying some ‘legacy diplomacy’. But can he really make progress if Kim Jong-il steps down?

By Patrick Cronin for

In the same month, South Korea has issued two official reports that on the surface give off mixed signals: one full of evidence demonstrating that North Korea could indeed have torpedoed the South Korean corvette the Chevron in March, killing 46 crew members; the other politely omitting the customary reference to North Korea as the South’s 'main enemy.'

The decision to omit this point from the 2010 National Defence White Paper underscores the interesting complexity of North-South relations and makes one thing clear — as Pyongyang prepares for an historic conference of its Workers’ Party this week to get for the inevitable succession to an ailing Kim Jong-l, both South and North Korea appear to be engaged in what could be called ‘legacy diplomacy.’

South Korea’s conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, is as trusted an ally as the United States has anywhere in the world. The former businessman makes no secret of his desire for US-South Korean solidarity, or his genuinely good chemistry with President Barack Obama. At the same time, Lee is keen to use the remaining two-plus years of his term in the Blue House to advance a possible breakthrough in North-South relations. This makes Lee no different from any of his predecessors, a couple of whom have arguably made some headway (however transitory) in dealing with the North.

But what makes Lee’s gambit so interesting is the apparent conviction of many officials in Seoul that a real sea-change in North Korean behaviour is possible (if not probable) between now and the end of 2012. This desire and conviction in turn helps to explain why he was determined to keep his cool in the wake of North Korea’s brutal attack on a South Korean naval vessel earlier this year.

To be sure, the South Korean government worked with the United States, Japan and others to slap on new sanctions and conduct naval exercises, while an exhaustive international review of the incident catalogued the tremendous circumstantial and scientific evidence against North Korea. But, at the end of the day, despite Pyongyang’s apparent torpedo attack and brinkmanship diplomacy, Lee kept open a channel with the North and options for pursuing closer talks.

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Meanwhile, Kim Jong-il is almost surely coming to terms with his own mortality and the uncertain future of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He travelled by train to China twice in the space of five months, certainly seeking financial and political support and perhaps also accepting some advice. He also then sent unmistakable signals to the United States through a visit by former US President Jimmy Carter that North Korea wants to return to peaceful diplomacy. Granted, this could be an entirely tactical manoeuvre. After all, the Workers’ Party Conference on Tuesday is a period of some vulnerability for North Korea. Meanwhile, the United States and other outside powers have been bolstering military and diplomatic pressure on North Korea.

In addition, it's clear that senior members of Lee’s government believe the Cheonan incident was not only payback to the South Korean navy for alleged past humiliations to its North Korean counterpart, but also most likely a deliberate sabotaging of secret back-channel negotiations between the North and the South. Military generals who really hold the reins of power in North Korea didn't want the talks to progress and the torpedo episode certainly put progress on hold.

But now, in late September, only six months later, talks appear to be back on, and a charm offensive, if not peace offensive, is being pursued by both Pyongyang and Seoul. Now, only the United States seems to be arguing for caution, with Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg making it clear that any resumption of nuclear talks must be substantive and make some tangible progress toward the goal of denuclearization.

Yet while no one is yet suggesting North Korea’s ailing Kim, some kind of new collective comprising his third son, brother-in-law and sister or an emerging military dictatorship would be prepared to give up the country's nuclear weapons, there are numerous positive steps that could be taken between where we are now and a denuclearized Korean Peninsula with international safeguards.

While the weight of history is against any successful breakthroughs with North Korea, the power of legacy diplomacy from both Pyongyang and Seoul makes at least one thing certain — the Korean Peninsula is undoubtedly going to be making headlines in the months ahead.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security