Lee’s North Korea Gambit
Image Credit: UNC-CFC-USFK

Lee’s North Korea Gambit


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.

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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.

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.

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