By Peter Main
THE NEWS that the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has returned from his talks with Kim Jong-un with three US citizens released from prison in North Korea appears, at first sight, to validate the “tough guy” approach to diplomacy of his boss, Donald Trump. This interpretation had already been strengthened by a series of highly conciliatory gestures from Kim; a unified Korean team at the Winter Olympics, the meeting with South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, at the “peace town” of Panmunjon, the decision to suspend nuclear tests, and even to dismantle the test site, and his comment that, in the right circumstances, he would give up nuclear weapons altogether.
Anyone impressed by Trump’s version of negotiation should, however, take a step back and consider the bigger picture; those prisoners were being held for just such a moment, the Olympics won Kim plaudits all around the world and cost him nothing while the suspension of nuclear testing is likely to have been a consequence of an earthquake which wrecked the site anyway.
More significantly, it was revealed, after the event, that Kim spent two days in a conference with President Xi Jinping of China just last week. There is a parallel here with a similar meeting, in Beijing, in late March, prior to Kim’s “groundbreaking” meeting with President Moon. Western media reports have suggested these visits were intended to reassure Beijing of North Korea’s undying loyalty to its longstanding “communist” ally, while he actually went ahead preparing to do deals with the capitalist West. There is, of course, another way of looking at it.
At the very least, the meeting with Xi is a salutary reminder that there is more than one major imperialist power with an immediate interest in the future of the Korean peninsula. Moreover, much as Trump and his sycophantic media might like to present the North Korean regime as an irrational oriental aberration and deride Kim himself as “the little rocket man”, he, and the regime he heads up, have played their hand with more than a little skill. North Korea is a poor country, certainly, and made poorer by the combination of its bureaucratic dictatorship and the economic sanctions imposed on it by the western imperialists. Nonetheless, from the point of view of the regime, they have pursued an entirely rational policy.
Like, Israel, which can surely trust Washington to support it in any conceivable crisis but, nonetheless, thought it best to develop its own nuclear weapons, North Korea could probably trust China and, before that, the Soviet Union, to take its side but decided to develop its own nuclear deterrent. As the Germans say, “Trust is good, control is better”. So, today, this impoverished little country of some 24 million has to be treated as something of an equal by the “Great Powers”.
Still, gratifying as that might be, it does nothing to end the poverty of most of those 24 million or the inefficiency of bureaucratic command planning. While the welfare of the people may not weigh heavily with the regime, its own survival is the most important consideration of all. For that, the regime knows full well it has to make fundamental changes, but those changes must keep the regime itself intact. Now, of the two biggest economic powers on the planet, the USA and China, which might offer the more appropriate model for Pyongyang?
To ask the question is surely to answer it. From its own resources, North Korea could not simply follow in China’s footsteps; restore private farming, set up a few Special Economic Zones, trustify its main industrial enterprises and wait for success in about twenty years. It can, however, hope to take advantage of its special relationship with China and, indeed, with South Korea, itself a world class player in economic terms.
The same thought is evidently in the minds not only of Pyongyang but of Seoul. In his election campaign last year, Moon called for economic cooperation and even integration of the two Koreas as a prelude to eventual re-unification. It seems this was not mere electoral rhetoric; at that meeting in Panmunjon, he presented Kim with a USB memory stick containing a detailed plan not just for Korean cooperation but for integration into China’s “One Belt, One Road” economic development project.
The key elements of the proposal are for the creation of three development zones, one on the East coast, connected by rail to China, a second on the international border to promote exchange and tourism and a third on the West coast to facilitate trade with Russia. The rail links would be expected to join up with China’s international network, stretching to both Europe and the Middle East. Clearly, these proposals will have been discussed with Beijing in advance not just as a diplomatic nicety but because they would greatly aid the development of the North-east of China, at present something of a rust belt.
If any such scenario were to be implemented, it might well provide the security, that is the prospect of its own survival, that the North Korean regime presently enjoys from possession of nuclear weapons, allowing the “denuclearisation” it has frequently said it wants. Characteristically, Trump’s response to such apparent concessions has been to raise his own demands to include dismantling of missile systems and all biological or chemical weapons capacity. At the same time, he has also declared his intention to upgrade the USA’s nuclear arsenal.
As the diplomatic chess game plays out, there will, of course, be any number of supposed “peace initiatives” as well as threats of war and even clashes involving military forces, whether intended or not. At stake is the future of the entire East Asian region and, with it, the balance of power within the whole world. Just as the rivalry between the imperialist powers, and their regional allies, has led to the destruction of whole countries in the Middle East, so the same rivalry could destabilise, even destroy, the many countries and, more importantly, their peoples, of Asia.
The USA and its dependent ally, Japan, remain hugely wealthy and powerful. That is a combination that allows both threats and bribes that could perhaps induce both Koreas to throw in their lot with the Western imperialists, hoping to benefit from being the front line against China in much the same way as Central and Eastern European states expected to benefit from their proximity to Russia. Equally, as Moon’s proposed economic plan for integration shows, they could opt to join the most dynamic of the imperialists, essentially maintaining the tributary role that Korea has played for two millenia.
The working classes of all the countries involved, and of the rest of the world, have no reason to side with either set of imperialists. All that is certain is that, whichever wins the current test of strength will become more assertive, more aggressive, on the world stage, while whichever loses will seek retaliation, whether in this sector of the board or another. North Korea may have played very skillfully but, like most other regimes, it remains a pawn at the mercy of the Grand Masters. It is worth remembering, however, that chess was invented in China.