February 1, 2004｜Korean Peninsula
Han Tong Seong
Assistant Professor, Korea University
Since the beginning of 2004, there has been increased activity on the Korean Peninsula. As symbolized by the positioning of 2004 as “the year of the all-out offensive” in a joint New Year editorial carried in each DPRK newspaper, there have been conspicuous proactive moves that could be described as offensives; these have taken place between the DPRK and the ROK, the DPRK and the US, and the DPRK and Japan, as well as within the domestic economy. A special feature in a monthly magazine on the theme “The Next Decade Will be Like This” carried the headline “The Moment When Kim Jong Il’s Regime Collapses”; however, from the standpoint of the DPRK, I strongly feel that this will not be the so-called “beginning of the end”, but rather that the “end” is approaching for the country’s steps towards the “beginning” of a new era. The vision that has steadily been prepared over a number of years by the new regime, which was born in 1998 with the enactment of a new constitution and the launch of a satellite, following the “march of hardship” after Kim Il Sung passed away, has reached the final phase of its realization.
Looking back, moves such as these have gradually come to light since 2000, along with the emergence of the slogan “A new perspective in our thinking and a new way of thinking”.
The first task upon which the DPRK embarked was the strengthening of its relationships with China and Russia. Kim Jong Il made lightning visits to China and Russia, holding talks with the leaders of those countries, visiting Beijing and Shanghai and touring major Russian cities and the Russian Far East on the Trans-Siberian Railway. These activities can be described as attempts to gain a foothold in regional economic cooperation in Northeast Asia, as well as to recreate the honeymoon period that once existed in relations between these three countries.
After improving the international environment vis-à-vis the countries closest to home, the DPRK began to work on bringing about an historic change in North-South relations with a view to unification, which is the earnest wish of the Korean people. Even though the situation with regard to the Korean Peninsula is extremely tense due to the nuclear issue, the interaction and cooperation that developed from the North-South Summit and the June 15th Joint Declaration are an incomparably firm, progressive foundation upon which the two Koreas can build.
Based on this, the DPRK has embarked in earnest upon improvements to its relationships with the US and Japan, a long outstanding issue in its diplomatic relations with countries other than those mentioned above. These include the exchange of visits by Vice-Marshal Cho Myong Rok and Madeleine Albright, then US Secretary of State, and the publication of the US-DPRK Joint Communiqué, as well as the beginning of contact between Japan and the DPRK, which culminated in the DPRK-Japan Pyongyang Declaration.
Then, as the premise for such improvements to the situation, long-awaited economic reforms based on the principle of pragmatism began to be introduced in 2002, including improvements to the socialist system of economic management and the successive establishment of special economic zones.
If we look at these developments as a whole, a vision that could be described as Kim Jong Il’s Vision for the 21st Century emerges. This vision consists of the following elements: i) “Peace, stability and mutual cooperation in Northeast Asia” with regard to the Korean Peninsula situation, which has historically focused on conflicts of interests between world powers; ii) “Reconciliation, cooperation and reunification between the two Koreas”, the uniform development of which has been stymied by the immeasurable tragedy generated as a result of the prolonged partition of the peninsula; and iii) “Economic reconstruction and the construction of a powerful nation” in the north, which has been forced to endure economic hardship as a result of political and military tension. These signify a transformation in the history of the Korean people, from the suffering of the 20th century, when the peninsula spent half a century as a colony and was divided for a further half century, to freedom, unification and prosperity in the 21st century.
What stood in the way of these developments, which seemed to be progressing smoothly, was the Bush administration’s hard-line policy with regard to the DPRK. As a result of the pressure applied to the country through Bush’s pronouncement regarding the “axis of evil” and statement that the US “will not hesitate to make a preemptive nuclear strike”, moves aimed at realizing this vision stalled and had to be put on hold. In addition, the derailment of efforts to improve DPRK-Japan relations, betraying the hopes that had begun to build within the country and overseas since the DPRK-Japan Pyongyang Declaration, is closely linked to this. It is common knowledge that the defensive battle between the DPRK and the US over the nuclear issue has continued to rage since then.
From the DPRK’s perspective, DPRK-US relations form the final and largest barrier to implementing its own vision. Economic reforms have already begun and there is a framework for North-South exchange and cooperation based on the joint declaration. There are also the traditional friendly relations with China and Russia, as well as the Pyongyang Declaration between Japan and the DPRK. The beginning of a new era awaits us once the last, biggest barrier has been broken down.
The tone of the DPRK’s New Year editorial hints at the country’s strong desire to ensure that this year will see the day of reckoning for DPRK-US relations. In fact, with regard to developments concerning the nuclear issue, it is becoming increasingly obvious over time that there are no avenues open other than to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula based on the DPRK abandoning its nuclear program and the US simultaneously guaranteeing the DPRK’s sovereignty.
“The end of the beginning” is close at hand. It seems that the vision of a new era for Northeast Asia focused on the two Koreas moving towards reunification, as a result of dramatic developments such as the peaceful solution of the nuclear issue and improvements in the DPRK’s relations with the US and Japan, and pragmatic socialism beginning in earnest in the DPRK will not merely be my first dream of the year.
[Translated by ERINA]