Page 1 of 2 How North Korea was lost - to China
By Aidan Foster-Carter
Who lost North Korea? The question may sound odd, even impertinent. It carries
echoes of a similar question that was bruited next door, 60 years ago, when
North Korea was new.
Then, the question was: Who lost China? That was how some in the United States
put it. They were anguished and angry that their man, Chiang Kai-shek, had
unaccountably been chased off the mainland by an unknown communist upstart
called Mao Zedong. In the emerging Cold War, which rapidly dissolved the
pre-1945 anti-fascist global alliance, the world's most populous nation had in
this view fallen on the wrong side of the fence. USSR 1, USA 0 - or so it
That debate - more a witchhunt, really - was nasty as well as
presumptuous. In what sense was China ever America's to lose in the first
place? Yet geopolitics won't go away.
Koreans don't need telling that - though nor do they like being reminded,
understandably. Twice in little over a century, they could only watch in
impotent fury as mightier powers first fought over and then carved up their
country, with huge and baleful consequences.
The first such watershed was at the turn of the previous century. After 500
years, Korea's Yi or Choson dynasty was enfeebled and inward-looking, prey to
mighty neighbors it had fended off in the past. Two of these, imperial China
and Tsarist Russia, were by then themselves creaking and moribund. So it didn't
take much for the neighborhood's rising power, Meiji Japan, which had already
had its revolution, to trounce both and nab Korea. That grab was completed
exactly 100 years ago; an awkward anniversary, to say the least.
Japan's brutal if brief rule - a long occupation or a very short colonialism;
take your pick - was ended only by a second outside intervention. You could
call it a surgical amputation, but nobody consulted the patient. In 1945, the
victorious US and USSR cut Korea in two. This was meant to be temporary; cue
hollow laughter. A terrible war ensued, killing millions but settling nothing.
By the time the wider world first heard of Korea, there were two of them.
Today, the peninsula looks on the brink of a third epochal shift. North Korea,
at least as we have known it, is finished. It may cling on grimly for a while,
but an ailing Kim Jong-il can't march his weary, half-starved and increasingly
mutinous serfs down a dead end forever.
So what next in Pyongyang? Re-enter geopolitics. We tend to neglect this
dimension, in part because North Korea has made itself such a royal pain to
everyone. A framework such as the nuclear six-party talks, bringing together
both Koreas and the Big Four powers - China, the US, Japan and Russia - may
create an illusion of regional unity. Yet this is misleading.
True, nobody wants a nuclear Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). And
everyone would like Kim to wise up and reform his collapsed economy. (Even Cuba
is embracing markets now. And then there was one ...)
But beyond that, convergence starts to diverge. The Cold War may be over, but
good old-fashioned spheres of influence are alive and well. The present
conjuncture has a strong whiff of a gathering storm, and of the 1890s - with
one crucial difference.
The rueful old Korean sokdam (proverb) – "when whales fight, the
shrimp's back is broken" - no longer applies. Never again will Korea be a
bystander in its own history. The peninsula today boasts the two strongest
states it has ever seen. Each in its different way has gained global heft: the
South as an industrial power, the North as a military threat and general pest.
But one of those roads leads nowhere. Like the Taewongun (regent) whose
late-19th century efforts to keep the world at bay earned Korea the sobriquet
"hermit kingdom", behind the ramparts Kim Jong-il has not truly protected his
realm, merely enfeebled it. North Korea today is like some rotten little fruit.
The question is into whose lucky lap this rancid plum will fall.
We are back in the 1890s again - but with a larger field of contenders, and
with any luck no risk of war this time (although you never know). Moreover,
while much is yet unclear about North Korea's future and the transition may yet
prove perilous, we already have a winner, if only because three rival
contenders, whether deliberately or by mishap and inadvertence, have already
yielded the field. In each case, you can understand why they took their bat
home, but you wonder if they'd really thought it through. Let's review each of
this trio in turn.
From the USSR to Russia
The DPRK was Moscow's creation. Kim Il-sung came home in 1945 in Red Army
uniform, but soon wriggled out of it, literally and metaphorically. Yet for 45
years, even while Kim trilled shrilly about juche (self-reliance), the
Soviet Union quietly and grimly paid his bills.
By 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev had had enough. In quick succession, he recognized
South Korea and abruptly ended aid to the North (and all other clients),
plunging its economy into a tailspin. The USSR itself soon dissolved, and Boris
Yeltsin was in no mood to court the world's last Stalinist. Vladimir Putin
tried to mend fences, meeting Kim Jong-il three years running, but no dice.
How and why did Russia lose North Korea? It's understandable that Moscow got
fed up with the ingrate rogues in Pyongyang, but whatever happened to raison
d'etat? Today, the power that first created North Korea has the least
power in determining its future: a striking irony.
Much of this is about money. North Korea's debts to the former USSR exceed US$8
billion, and despite a reported deal it's still not clear how much if any is
being repaid. So Moscow refuses to throw good money after bad. Trade has
shriveled, and Russia's only major recent investment is to modernize the
cross-border railway to North Korea's ice-free port of Rajin.
Fair enough, in a way. But it leaves Russia with less influence on the
peninsula than ever.
Japan on the sidelines
Then there is, or was, Japan. This was a rum do. For decades, neither the lack
of official ties nor bitter Korean memories impeded pragmatic contacts between
Tokyo and Japan.
There were two major go-betweens. Koreans in Japan, though mostly hailing from
the South, at first tended to support the North politically (hard as that may
be to imagine now). Japan obliged by colluding with Kim Il-sung to send 90,000
of them "home": a little-known and shameful story, brilliantly told by Tessa
Morris-Suzuki in her book Exodus to North Korea.
Their wiser kin who stayed in Japan went back and forth. Some did business:
Japan was long North Korea's number two trade partner, after the USSR. Other
regular visitors came from Japan's Socialist Party (JSP), whose guilt-based
pro-North stance did not stop them reporting obediently to the Foreign Ministry
about their trips across the "Sea of No Agreed Name".
In 1990, it briefly seemed more was possible. The legendary Liberal Democratic
Party (LDP) kingmaker Shin Kanemaru went to Pyongyang, and got on well with Kim
Il-sung. Opening formal relations would have yielded $10 billion in aid: handy,
with Soviet subsidies gone.
Might Japan have filled the vacuum left by the USSR, had each side played its
cards better? We'll never know. Shin quit in 1993 amid a raft of scandals, with
North Korean gold as Exhibit B.
A decade later came another breakthrough attempt, which backfired badly. In
2002, the then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi flew to Pyongyang, the first
top Japanese leader to do so. He got Kim Jong-il, astonishingly, to admit and
apologize for past kidnappings, hitherto indignantly denied. The five kidnapped
survivors - eight had mysteriously died - were repatriated.
Yet instead of putting out a fire as intended, this fanned the flames. North
Korea's refusal to tell a full or credible story about abductees who had
perished, including 13-year old schoolgirl Megumi Yokota, infuriated Japanese
public opinion, egged on by the same sinister rightist forces who seek to
whitewash the past brutalities of Japanese imperialism.
Since then, things have gone from bad to worse. Japan has piled on sanctions,
and now bans all trade with North Korea. Even regime change, with the
Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) promising all manner of winds of change on
other fronts, has made little difference here.