Carter in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Il in Changchun: Commentary

BEIJING — Jimmy Carter hardly rehabilitated the malevolent North Korean regime by showing up in Pyongyang, but the country’s communist leaders were undoubtedly glad to see him.  Kim Jong Il’s government is desperate to brandish success: it is nervously preparing for a Party Congress next month, an event where Kim Jong Eun, the youngest scion of Kim’s sprawling and polygamous family tree, will presumably be revealed as the  new symbolic leader of the North Korean revolution.  Given that Kim Jong Eun is all of 26 years old and that his only discernable resumé item involves an interest in digital technology, Carter’s trip lends the regime some badly-needed face as well as offering the possibility of relaxed tensions with the US.

Meanwhile, the US Navy is undertaking massive military manoeuvres off of Korea’s eastern coast; a recent flood in the ricebowl province of North Pyong’an has made North Korea vulnerable again to famine and further dependent on outside aid.  Adding to the pressure are the multiple missteps North Korea has taken to anger its Chinese patron.

Under such turbulent circumstances, the United States can either play it safely, taking its time in negotiating with an atrophied North Korean leadership, or provoke further crisis in North Korean inner circles by offering the country a grand bargain, giving North Korean pragmatists – assuming that all such people still exist  – a powerful argument for normalization as a possible pillar of what is now being called Kim Jong Il’s “undying legacy.”

For the ailing and obstreperous Kim Jong Il, urgency seems the order of the day.  Given that he himself had held public posts in the Party for some 34 years before assuming power after his father’s death, Kim Jong Il has reason to be nervous.  Kim and his son’s alleged trip to revolutionary sites in China (during Carter’s visit, no less) betrays the kind of impulsive behaviour for which they are famous, but also indicates a strong desire to link the successor to the revolutionary legitimacy of state founder Kim Il Song.  Like a Senate candidate from New York visiting Israel, Kim Jong Eun’s ostensible voyage to Manchuria represents a politically resonant trip to the Holy Land — in this case, a Holy Land where the North Korean state religion of guerrilla anti-Japanese militarism was spawned.  It also reminds North Koreans of Kim Il Sung’s achievements at a similarly young age and implies that precociousness should not be held against Kim Jong Eun – a tough sell in a country where communism seems actually to have strengthened certain Confucian values.

North Korea may appear to be limping along, but at the coming moment of transition, signs exist that stability may prevail.  There is today no massive exodus of North Korean refugees, no sign of a Romania-style implosion on the frontiers of this cultish state, no emergence of a North Korean Robespierre.  Although a few South Korean pop melodies linger among youth in the cities, all comprehensive alternative religions have been suffocated.  The remnants of civil society lie split and desiccated like roots on the slashed-and-burned hills of North Hamgyong; individuals in regional cities like Hamhung float though their days in disembodied ennui deepened by drugs and alcohol, not scrawling dissident agit-prop.

North Korea has strengthened discipline along its northern border, slowing greatly the movement of the hungry and the economically ambitious North Koreans into China.  Domestic markets are shedding the bruises from the body blow of the disastrous state currency revaluation last December and the state seems determined to talk – if not to alleviate – the deficits in living standards and consumer goods.  For the time being, the North Korean leaders are eschewing another “speed campaign” launched with ample propaganda, insufficient industrial resources, and still fewer calories.

Along with the Carter visit, these are small signs of success to which North Korean leaders are no doubt pointing to in their internal discussions.  For a small, besieged, and potentially haemorrhaging state like North Korea, a crises averted must be counted as a signal victory.  Christian missionaries along the swollen rivers that form North Korea’s border with China and remote-control “analysts” in Langley, Virginia, may be waiting a very long time for North Korea’s collapse.

A present turn in relations with North Korea may still be possible, and would certainly be supported by China.  PRC border guards are still heaving the occasional North Korean refugee back into the wolfish maw of the North Korean gulags, but there is simply no question that China was instrumental in facilitating Carter’s visit and is doing nearly everything it can to reduce – if not erase – US tensions with North Korea.  For North Korean negotiators, a 3-day session in Pyongyang by the coin-and-criticism heavy Chinese bigwig Wu Dawei cleared the way for Carter, who stopped here in Beijing for consultations, probably with Hillary Clinton’s mentor on North Korean issues, Dai Bingguo, before going to Pyongyang.

China supports a US-DPRK rapprochement, but East Asian hawks and Japanese neoconservatives will be sceptical of possible backroom deals between the US and North Korea.  The US lobby that has been crying for North Korea’s destruction since 1950 will call the whole process “appeasement,” wondering why Obama is not dropping special-ops forces into Chinese territory to start World War III.  Carter, however, has surely been reading his national security memos, and his visit brings US and Chinese goals on the Korean peninsula into closer harmony.  Given the underwater fissures in the region after the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, there may be more beneficiaries of Carter’s voyage than the family of Alion Gomes or the Kim dynasty.  Continuing rapidly on the track to engagement with North Korea at the present time would add to the stress on Pyongyang and cause the North Korean internal debate around to succession to take into account the profitable possibility of peace with the United States.

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