THE proof of the pudding is in the eating. And where North Korea is concerned, no one should hold their breath till the meal is over, and the table cleared.
The June 12 Singapore Summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un held out promise but was scant on detail. Today US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Pyongyang, as he observed to reporters travelling with him, “to fill in the details on the commitments made.”
Kim Jong Un himself was not there to receive the top US diplomat but sent Kim Yong Chol, a former spy chief and confidant instead. Pompeo will hold talks late tonight and early Saturday before he goes to Tokyo to brief Japanese and South Korean officials.
In a scantily covered trip earlier this month, Defence Secretary Gen James Mattis has already visited all the other interested parties, starting with China, Japan and South Korea.
Before he left, defence department officials anonymously billed it as a preparatory trip, though not in as many words. The US would shortly see if the North Koreans were “serious”, reporters were told in a “background” briefing at the Pentagon, the defence HQ .
Mattis encountered an extremely hardline public response from President Xi Jinping on American concerns over-militarisation of the South China Sea.
It was not just the strident language of Xi’s statement, which said “China would not surrender an inch of its territory” but also the tone of the entire visit, which is certain to impact any negotiations on denuclearisation of the North Korean peninsula.
China, which has long held up the North Korean regime, has always been the more dependable ally. As a nation which came into existence on the cusp of the Cold War immediately after WW II, North Korea was caught between Stalinist Russia and the US as the superpowers, both the victors of WWII, scrambled for the spoils in the upcoming influence game
Thousands of Chinese soldiers died beating back American troops as Chinese founder Chairman Mao desperately tried to fence in his fledgling Revolution of 1949, then only two years old. Mao’s own son, his eldest child, died in a US bombing run in the Korean war. And despite Deng Xiao Peng’s reforms and their great success, Mao remains the central figure in China’s communist party iconography today.
DPRK founder Kim Il Sung, the current chairman Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, based his nation on the philosophy of “Juche” in Korean, which roughly translates to self-reliance.
An intellectually and painstakingly argued position, this “self-reliance” extends to a belief that Man is the master of his Destiny in existential terms. It is very like communism in that there is no place in it for “God”. Practically, it means a strong defence to ensure the nation’s “survival”.
The Americans, who see their very nation as having been founded through Divine Providence were clearly enemies to both China and DPRK.
Today, a rich, developed and powerful China plays an overwhelmingly important role in North Korea and will be crucial in determining if the peace process will succeed.
Though Kim Jong Un made his first visit to Beijing only six years after he took power, practically nothing is known about the thinking inside DPRK about the relationship with China. Indeed, nothing is known about DPRK except what is released through South Korean intelligence agencies, which are not very dependable. The Americans these days depend on electronic surveillance and have no “human assets” in the region, a fact that the CIA has acknowledged in congressional hearings.
Western intelligence agencies have long known that unmarked ships of doubtful origin have routinely rendezvoused with North Korean ships with supplies, perhaps food and possibly arms in violation of UN sanctions.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity to this reporter, a North Korean official indicated the depth of this relationship between China and DPRK.
To a question, he shot back: “Of course China will feel threatened if America continues to have a strong military presence and surveillance planes fly close to their border.”
When asked if they bought the American promises to help create a robust Singapore-like economy, he shrugged. “We are not here hoping that the Americans will give us something. We do not seek American aid.
“We would like to develop on our own,” he said. Asked if there were negotiations under way after the summit, he said if there were, they would happen at a high level.
However, this interview was conducted a week ago, and a week is a long time in North Korea, or even in geopolitics in the Trump era. Besides, there was genuine warmth between Trump and Kim during the summit on June 12, so there are signs that there is real concern in Beijing.
China, which was not at the table, could not have been happy about any direct talks between the US and DPRK. For years China has used its access and power over North Korea to keep all interlopers who might reach out to DPRK out.
This kind of behaviour is par for the course for China, which over decades in Southeast Asia and the subcontinent has used political subversion and military alliances with neighbours as instruments to aid its foreign policy objectives.
China’s concern over any possible headway is discernible, but only barely. The North Koreans have typically displayed some belligerence after visits to Beijing by Kim in the run-up to the summit. But more significantly, the Chinese have hardened their stances on other matters while dealing with the US, a fact that President Trump mentioned before the Summit.
There is also a distinct, very noticeable change in the “optics” in journalistic parlance during the young North Korean leader’s first post-summit visit to Beijing on June 19.
Till now, all visits by North Korean heads of state have always been shrouded in secrecy. Kim’s father and predecessor Kim Jong Il visited in 2006 to a typically secret reception where state machinery is focused to achieve just one ordinary goal: a shot of the Supreme Leader shaking hands with the Chinese President.
There is a general news blackout back home in the DPRK even of the top leader’s visits. In 2006, the news of the visit was broadcast over state TV days after his began and only after the leader was safely back home. Not this time.
According to sources, there was much more timely, though not simultaneous coverage of the Trump-Kim summit as well as Kim’s visit to Beijing. Even more notable, the “optics” on international media were unmistakable: Kim’s visit was being covered in a manner all other world leaders’ visits are covered. Thanks to the summit, Kim Jong Un had been “normalised.” in full view of the international media.
Within China, there was a matching change: China gave far more prominence to the younger Kim than to his father. Extremely confident and composed, the North Korean took the proffered hand of the Chinese leader as someone not at all subservient to the much more powerful Xi.
Kim toured a Railways factory and, just before his plane took off the next day, he also made “on-the-spot” inspections of two Chinese infrastructure institutes that are part of the One Belt One Road initiative that China has staked its ambitions for global dominance on.
In fact, analysts in a communist-party controlled newspaper have suggested that China may extend the belt and road plan to include DPRK, a certain indication that even if not imminent, such a sop is being offered at the highest levels.
Over seven decades and at least since the late-90s, China could easily have aided North Korea’s development in infrastructure, education and technology. North Korea never had an option. That has now changed.
During Pompeo’s visit, North Korea will have the opportunity for the first time in its existence to climb out of China’s deep, dark shadow.
This article was first published on The Citizen
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent