Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Most Dangerous Man in Korea is Not Kim Jung Il

I have an article up on Asia Times titled The Most Dangerous Man in Korea.

The man I’m referring to is South Korean president Lee Myung-bak.

Provocative, n’cest pas?

The point of the article is that Lee wants the U.S. to support his hands-off policy toward the DPRK until the Kim regime staggers off and dies.  Then the ROK can swoop in and reunify the peninsula on its terms.

Of course, any US or Chinese engagement that prolongs the life of the DPRK (or creates conditions conducive to the emergence of an independent successor regime) is anathema to Lee.

Trouble is, North Korea is still in good enough shape militarily to give Lee more trouble than he can handle.

So the North Koreans goad Lee with provocations like the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents—to which Lee apparently dares not respond with anything stronger than moral suasion and a call for more sanctions and military exercises-- in order to demonstrate to the South Korean electorate and the United States government that Lee’s policy of ignoring Pyongyang is not the best way to go.

I concluded my discussion of the situation on the Korean peninsula with the rather prescient passage:

Pyongyang has presumably noted that Lee's approval ratings, which reached a high of over 60% after hosting the prestigious Group of 20 summit, fell to 45% after the Yeonpyeong shelling and the government's tepid response.

The North Koreans may succumb to the temptation to push his approvals down another few notches with another provocation and see if he really pushes back or finally turns to the Chinese to mediate.

Or, for that matter, if the United States decides to abandon its hands-off policy and restart the denuclearization negotiation and food and energy aid circus desperately desired by Pyongyang.

Enter Bill Richardson, ex-governor of New Mexico, who has used his involvement with Korean issues to burnish his foreign policy credentials.

Mr. Richardson was in North Korea last week to do various unspecified stuff and presumably pass a message from the Obama administration that it preferred that the cycle of Nork provocation and ROK chest-thumping to end before something awful happens.

Bill Richardson also figures in a book about the detention and release of two American journalists that came out recently, Somewhere inside: one sister’s captivity in North Korea and the other’s fight to bring her home, by Lisa and Laura Ling (New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2010).

Lisa, the captive, was employed by Al Gore’s media operation, Channel One, when she was detained, together with her colleague Euna Lee, by North Korean border guards in 2009.  Laura, her sister, a media-savvy ball of fire (worked on The View, Oprah) took charge of the PR campaign to create and sustain suitable conditions for Lisa and Euna’s release.

Laura climbed the political clout ladder, starting with Al Gore and Bill Richardson.  The North Koreans cagily dismissed them as political small potatoes.

Then, through the State Department, she was able to get the OK for Jimmy Carter to go to Pyongyang..

At this point, I have to believe that Kim Jong Il was running around his office in paroxysms of excitement and telling his doubting diplomats, We’ve got them on the hook!  Go for Clinton! Go for Clinton!

And, indeed, after the US side was told that Carter was too old, wrinkly, and irrelevant, Bill Clinton made the trip in Steven Bing’s private jet, to what we can imagine was the gracefully disguised chagrin of Carter, Gore, and Richardson.

Just so you know that the United States knows exactly what North Korea wants (direct engagement with the United States and to hell with the Chinese), here’s a brief excerpt from the book:

[Richardson] asked me if the State Department had a plan for how to deal with our situation, and I told him that Beijing was being solicited for assistance.  “The North Koreans hate dealing with China!” he tersely warned.  “Trust me, the North Koreans wil become very upset if the U.S. tries to involve China in any way.”

He went on to say something that would be repeated to me by a number of ardent North Korea watchers:  “What they [the North Koreans’ want is to deal directly with the United States.  North Korea is insulted by the six-party talks.”...[Later] he went on to say that he’d told the State Department to cut China out of the process.

By, the way, “ardent” is an obvious flub.  What she really meant to say was “discerning and incisive”.

Happy holidays.


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