China-North Korea : the Great Hanschluss still the base case scenario

Very interesting conference yesterday at The Plaza Hotel Seoul : "Responding to the Consolidation of Economic Cooperation between North Korea and China" was sponsored by the Korea Finance Corporation (KoFC, the State-run investment arm), and Maeil Business Maeil Business Newspaper (mbn).

For its 18th edition, this North Korea Policy Forum conference became an international seminar, with China, Japan, and the USA providing keynote speakers (bonus: an opening remark - in Korean - by US Ambassador Kathleen STEPHENS, ahead of Hillary CLINTON's visit later this week). Unfortunately, neither Russia (definitely below the radar regarding the issue), nor DPRK (for obvious reasons) were represented.

This Four Party Talk was observed by a captive audience (see exhibit A*), in spite of a very dense agenda (see exhibit B, the full program below**) which didn't leave much time for Q&A nor discussions.

What made this conference really exciting were the differences in appreciation of a definitely complex and tricky situation. And at this game, US players spoke their minds out quite freely, even if some Koreans expressed very clearly their concerns to "Mr China" a.k.a. Professor Zhu Feng, absolutely brilliant in his good cop routine : what engagement ? we're not engaged to North Korea, just good neighbors tired of your family affairs - yes, KIM Jong-il is a bad guy and a headache for us as well, but he's your brother, and brothers don't kill each other - yes, these days, our Chinese government is rather conservative, and is pervasively locking key entry points across North Korea, but the colonization of NK by China is a ludicrous conspiration theory - yes, we're doing every day more business here, but as Pr KIM Chul noticed, our entrepreneurs are so much struggling with their local partners that most are curbing their enthusiasm...

Of course, no one mentioned the Northeast Project of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences : this was about business, with politics clearly off-limits. As if PRC-DPRK relations were apolitical. As if policies had nothing to do with politics...

Anyway, I had fun and would very much like to attend the next edition - maybe in a different order (first the historical background, then the trends, and finally the various scenarii / recos), and in a different format (ie three panelists max for each topic, a lunch between two power sessions instead of a dinner after a marathon).

By then, chances are many more fundamental changes will have happened. If not the end of North Korea, at least a re-engagement by the South, and potentially a summit (consider the past year : Cheonan sinking and Yeonpyeong-do shelling, KIM Jong-un's promotions, Middle East uprisings, NK reviving its nuke program, Japan spicing North East Asia nuclear nightmares with a new flavor, or the day before the conference a mini-crisis over Mt Gumgang tours...).

If you're familiar with this excuse for a blog, you already know my opinion on North Korea*** :

1) Technically, the North Korean regime is already dead. It only relied on ideology and propaganda, the first lost its substance and the second its efficiency in the eyes of a growing proportion of the population. A little bit like in Iran, ailing and corrupt leaders progressively outsource the power to brutal military forces. At this stage, masses remain overwhelmed and change remains driven by State leaders, but popular rebellions are getting bolder every year, and 450,000 North Koreans have now a mobile phone (reaching far beyond the first nomenklatura circles).

2) The statu quo, or what I called the "Juche line" is not an option - change is coming. For the official end, my base case scenario evolved over time : until the late nineties I believed in an "Albania scenario" (brutal collapse, masses fleeing the country, cult of personality victims abused by con people and more or less religious cults...), but spectacular initiatives from China followed by the highly controversial Northeast Project led me to believe in the more subtle, progressive, and pervasive "Hanschluss scenario". A scenario confirmed by the ambitious developments announced over the following 2-3 years for North East China (on schedule, as we saw yesterday during the conference) : once again, whatever the motives and whatever North Korean leaders do, they also result in artificially relocating the epicenter of Koreanity on Chinese soil, and more physically than intense revisionism about Korean history (ie Goguryo). A scenario sealed by LEE Myung-bak in 2007 : South Korea's disengagement precipitated further the North towards China, leaving no dovish alternative.

3) Of course, China doesn't need to politically integrate North Korea as another province : an unofficial vassal status easy does it, and the process seems very well engaged. Reminder : the Cheonan aggression was about internal affairs, but not between both Koreas. KIM Jong-il had first to reassess his friendship with the army, and second to get some leverage ahead of the "negociations" with the PRC. Chaperoned by CHANG Sung-taek, KIM Jong-un got the nod from Beijing : KJI's brother in law later developped a paralel FDI tool, more China-friendly than the official one. He also lost a rival in a convenient car accident. No need to read fortune cookies to understand that more high ranking officials will join the collaborators to push their luck. With the Yeonpyeong island shelling, Junior assessed his own friendship with the army (nevermind those darn binoculars). Father and son completed the pledge of allegiance with a familial pilgrimage in China, where Grand Dad KIM Il-sung himself got his education, an other way of accepting the only filiation that counts : NK's Motherland is China.

4) The Great Hanschluss is not completed yet. Both China and South Korea are also experiencing ideology crisis at home between conservatism, progressivism, and agnostic pragmatism / reform. South Korea and North Korea share more common ground than survivors of a lost era. They still share an identity and a destiny. And this is not about rejecting China, but about embracing themselves.

blogules 2011 - see also the original post on
Seoul Village ("Re-engaging North Korea - A Four Party Talk")

* including yours truly (exhibit A: Stephane and Steven, alias Paris, Texas - photo by KIM Jae-hun, Maeil Business Newspaper - "
北·中 교류, 일방적 원조서 시장원리로 전환") :

** The full program:
- Opening remarks : RYU Jae-han (President, KoFC), CHANG Dae-hwan (CEO, Maeil Business Newspaper), Kathleen STEPHENS (US Ambassador to South Korea)
- Panel One ("East Asian Regional Cooperation and North Korea-China Relations" and "China's Approach to North Korea: National Interests and Strategy") :
. moderator : HONG Yang-ho (former Vice-Minister of Unification)
. presenters : Matsuno SHUJI (Ritsumeikan University), John Delury (Yonsei University), Zhu Feng (Beijing University)
. panelists : LEE Chan-woo (Tokyo International University - NB: the first to entertain the audience with maps), Edward REED (from The Asia Foundation - NB : only had time to phrase the key questions, but it was worth the trip), LEE Hui-ok (Sungkyunkwan University), KIM Heung-kyu (Sungshin Women's University), KIM Yong-hyun (Dongguk University)
- Panel Two ("The Present and Future of Economic Cooperation Between North Korea and China" and "China's Growing Influence on North Korea and How South Korea Should Respond") :
. moderator : LEE Sang-man (Chairman, the Steering Committee for the North Korea Policy Forum)
. presenters : YOON Seung-hyun (Yanbian University, NEA Research Institute), Scott SNYDER (Center for US-Korea Policy), PARK Gun-il (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)
. panelists : OH Seung-ryul (Hankuk University of Foreign Studies - NB: the first to mention the obvious limits of official statistics, which capture only part of exchanges between DPRK and PRC), KIM Chul (Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences), CHEONG Seong-chang (Sejong Institute), CHU Suk-yong (KoFC - Ministry of Unification), KIM Se-hyung (Chief Editor, Maeil Business Newspaper)

*** see previous posts on NK, and in particular the focus on the "Great Hanschluss" ("Great Wall of China - Anschlussing Korea (continued)" - also on blogules in English "a greater wall of china - bonus, korea inside (the great hanschluss)" and in French "La Grande Muraille de Chine à l'assaut de la Corée (l'ultime Hanschluss)")

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