Asia
1:29 am
Fri December 23, 2011

With N. Korea In Flux, Neighbors Reassess Policies

Originally published on Fri December 23, 2011 7:23 am

The boundary between North Korea and South Korea has been called the world's most dangerous border. But on Thursday, the most dangerous thing about it appeared to be the biting cold and bone-chilling wind, with one Korean soldier jokingly describing the temperature as "hell."

At the Joint Security Area where the actual demarcation line is, half a dozen South Korean soldiers stood at the alert, facing off against one solitary North Korean soldier in khaki. The only unusual sign was the North Korean flag flying at half-staff.

Despite the political shock of Kim Jong Il's sudden death, the military situation in the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, is unchanged, according to the spokesman for U.S. forces in Korea, Col. Jonathan Withington.

"All is calm," he says. "We're operating under normal armistice conditions. We've seen no unusual movements or activities."

Now that the Kim Jong Il era has come to an end, North Korea's neighbors are recalibrating their policies and weighing new security concerns.

On Thursday, South Korea's conservative President Lee Myung-bak urged stability in the North. He underlined that South Korea does not feel animosity toward the North and said there is room for flexibility in ties.

These words come at a time when ties between the two Koreas have deteriorated to the worst point in years. A total of 50 South Koreans, mainly soldiers, were killed in the past year during two military provocations blamed on North Korea, including the shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong.

Now Kim Jong Il's death appears to open the way for a softening of the South's stance, the emergence of a new policy toward the North.

"I think South Korea's policy is being reconstituted as we speak, and so is the world in terms of trying to deal with this very unusual state," says Jasper Kim, the author of Crisis and Change: South Korea in a Post-1997 New Era and a visiting scholar at Harvard. He describes Seoul's policy toward Pyongyang as being "in flux" and in a state of "slight confusion."

"The South Korean president is trying to get closer to North Korea, but not exactly close," he says. "This is a little bit in stark contrast to what his policy was in the beginning of his administration: that North Korea is a state that is not a friend to South Korea."

China Shows Support

While South Korea has been re-examining its ties, China has not been wasting time. Beijing has been busy honoring the late North Korean leader, despite a sometimes fractious relationship during his lifetime.

All of China's top nine leaders — from President Hu Jintao on down — have made the pilgrimage to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing. China was also the first country to offer condolences following Kim's death.

Hahm Chaibong, the president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, says he believes China's moves are carefully calculated.

"During Kim Jong Il's time, we know that there was really no love lost between the Chinese and North Koreans," Hahm says. "Back when Kim Jong Il himself was going through a political transition, when he was succeeding his father, the Chinese didn't help him. It didn't do much to alleviate the famine that started in 1995. And there was a very long period — more than a decade — when nobody of any significance visited the other side."

That's in stark contrast to the recent rapprochement. Kim Jong Il himself had visited China three times in the past 18 months, as have a parade of North Korean officials.

Last October, Beijing sent Zhou Yongkang, the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of security to attend Kim Jong Un's coming-out parade, where he played a prominent role standing on the podium beside Kim Jong Il and his successor. With that very public support of the succession, China's message was unequivocal.

"The Chinese seem to be making very, very clear that they're not going to make the same mistake they did with Kim Jong Il," says Hahm Chaibong. "They're going to make sure that Kim Jong Un feels grateful toward China for supporting him in a period of very difficult transition. That's one of the reasons why the Chinese are going out of their way to show respect and to assure Kim Jong Un."

Another sore point for the South is that it didn't know about Kim's death until it was announced two days later on North Korean state television. It's unclear whether China was given early notice. For many in South Korea, this represented a failure of South Korean intelligence and highlighted a glaring security weakness on the Korean peninsula.

"It just goes to show if the top brass in North Korea makes a decision to launch some kind of a major attack or something, we just won't know until it actually happens," Hahm says. "There's just going to be no way we are going to be able to take any kind of preventative measure, because we just won't know in time."

Despite the current calm at the DMZ, the geopolitical shakeout is only just beginning. An unknown 20-something is now at the very least nominally in charge of a nuclear-armed state. His father may have been predictable in his unpredictability. But what Kim Jong Un will do — or even what he's thinking — is something nobody can predict.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. South Korea may have put frontline troops on alert after the death of North Korea's Dear Leader, but the president of South Korea is assuring the North that his country is not hostile.

And in North Korea, the state-run media has been bolstering the late leader's son and successor, Kim Jong Un, calling him an outstanding leader. With the end of the Kim Jong Il era, North Korea's neighbors are re-calibrating their policies and weighing new security concerns.

NPR's Louisa Lim starts her report on a press tour of the demilitarized zone - the DMZ - between North and South Korea.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: If any trouble were to break out it, could very well happen here. It has in the past...

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: It's been called the world's most dangerous border. But as American soldiers herded the press pack around the DMZ, the biggest danger appeared to be the weather.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Has it been really cold up here?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Oh it's been hell...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LIM: At the border, half a dozen South Korean soldiers stood at the alert, facing off against one solitary North Korean soldier in khaki. The only unusual sign was the North Korean flag flying at half-mast.

Despite the political shock of Kim Jong Il's sudden death, the military situation in the DMZ is unchanged, according to the spokesman for U.S. Forces in Korea, Colonel Jonathan Withington.

COLONEL JONATHAN WITHINGTON: All is calm.

LIM: Completely as normal?

WITHINGTON: Yeah.

LIM: Have you seen any changes?

WITHINGTON: Normal operating - we're operating under normal armistice conditions. We've no seen no unusual movements or activities.

PRESIDENT LEE MYUNG-BAK: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: South Korea's conservative President Lee Myung-bak urged stability in the North. He underlined that Seoul does not feel animosity towards Pyongyang and said there was room for flexibility in ties. These words seem to indicate a softening of stance, the emergence of a new policy towards the North.

JASPER KIM: I think South Korea, its policy is being reconstituted as we speak, and so is the world in terms of how to deal with this very unusual state.

LIM: Jasper Kim is the author of a book about South Korea and a visiting scholar at Harvard. He describes Seoul's policy to Pyongyang as being in flux and in a state of slight confusion.

KIM: What he's trying to do - the South Korean president - is trying to get closer to North Korea, but not exactly close. So this is a little bit in stark contrast to what his policy was in the beginning of his administration, that North Korea is a state that is not a friend to South Korea.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: While South Korea has been reexamining its ties, China has not been wasting time. As this news report describes, Beijing's been busy honoring the late North Korean leader, despite the sometimes fractious relationship during his lifetime.

All of China's top nine leaders - from President Hu Jintao downwards - have made the pilgrimage to the North Korean embassy in Beijing. China too was the first country to offer condolences following Kim's death.

Hahm Chai-bong, the director of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, believes Beijing's playing a geopolitical game.

HAHM CHAI-BONG: Even during Kim Jong Il's time, we know that there was real no love lost between Chinese and North Koreans. The Chinese seem to be making very, very clear that they're not going to make the kind of mistake they did with Kim Jong Il. And they're going to make sure that Kim Jong Un feels grateful towards China for supporting him in a period of very difficult transition. So I think that's one of the reasons why the Chinese are going out of their way to show respect and to assure Kim Jong Un.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Another sore point for the South has been its failure to know about Kim's death ahead of this official announcement on North Korean state television. It's not clear whether China was given an early warning. But for many here, this failure of South Korean intelligence highlights glaring security weaknesses on the Korean peninsula.

Here's Hahm Chai-bong again.

CHAI-BONG: It just goes to show if the top brass in North Korea makes a decision to launch some kind of a major attack or something, we just won't know until it actually happens. There's just going to be no way we will be able to take any kind of preventative measure because we just won't know in time.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (Unintelligible)

LIM: Despite the current calm at the DMZ, the security situation in Asia has changed forever, and the geopolitical shakeout is only just beginning. An unknown 20-something is now at the very least nominally in charge of a nuclear-armed state. His father may have been predictable in his unpredictability. But how Kim Jong Un will act - or even what he's thinking - nobody can predict.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.