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Changing Inter-Korean Ties: China's Views

Signs indicating a definite forward movement in the relations between the two Koreas have appeared of late; the process, when gets completed, can have major implications in the coming years for the geo-politics and economy in the North East Asia.

DPRK-ROK Relations

Following the fifth Inter-Korean General Military talks (Panmunjom, May 7-11,2007), the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) have conducted their historic cross-border railway test runs on May 17,2007, first in 50 years . In return for Pyongyang’s acceptance of the runs, the ROK has agreed to supply the DPRK with 400,000 tonnes of rice.

Equally significant have been other developments. Firstly, there has been some progress on the crucial North Korean nuclear issue. The DPRK’s announcement (May 15) that the work is ‘underway’ to defreeze its funds kept in the Banco Delta Asia at Macao, which has so far remained Pyongyang’s pre-condition, has brought a change in the atmosphere. Noteworthy is Pyongyang’s reiteration of its commitment at the same time to invite the IAEA delegation and allow international verification of the DPRK’s nuclear programme. Pyongyang’s suspension of its Yongbyon nuclear facility as per the Six-Party Agreement (February 13,2007) thus looks a distinct possibility now, which can favourably impact on the situation on the Korean peninsula and the North-South ties in particular.

Secondly, both the ROK and the DPRK are reportedly preparing for summit-level talks by August 15 and consultations between the two Defence Ministers soon, pointing to the likely further momentum in bilateral relations. Joint fishing zone in the West sea in North Korea, has been agreed upon. The expected boost in shipping links, crucial to the economies of the two Koreas, needs mention next. As a beginning, a North Korean cargo ship has paid a visit to the ROK port of Pusan, first time in more than half a decade.

DPRK-Domestic Situation

Recent developments in the domestic situation of the DPRK could also have a bearing on the developing Inter-Korean ties. From the point of view of bilateral relations, Seoul may feel encouraged by the new urgency being noticed on the part of the North Korean leadership to stimulate domestic economic growth. Pyongyang is now giving equal emphasis to the need for the country to become “prosperous and powerful” as well as to adhere to ‘Song gun’ (Military First) policy. The ROK may watch with interest what seem to be the corresponding adjustments in progress concerning the fields of defence, security and politics in North Korea. Apparently as an effort to show its defence policy as transparent to the outside world and also to express its renewed faith in international mechanisms for conflict resolutions, Pyongyang has submitted its Defence White Paper to the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), marking first such occasion since the DPRK joined that organisation in 2000. Seoul may also not miss the apparent political significance of the latest reshuffle at the government-levels carried out in North Korea, through appointments of new incumbents to the posts of the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Chief of General Staff.

US Policy Towards The DPRK

Modifications in the US policy towards the DPRK have also provided a background to the changing Inter-Korean ties. In the past, Washington had been demanding a ‘complete, verifiable and irreversible nuclear disarmament’ in the DPRK, prior to any US aid to the latter. The Six-Party Agreement of February 13,2007 has, on the other hand, reflected a nuanced shift in the US stand, away from ‘complete disarmament’ demand. The main factor motivating the US in this regard seems to be its current preoccupation with the crises in Iraq and Middle East, compelling it to avoid any military confrontation with North Korea at this juncture and limit its attention on capping the DPRK’s nuclear weapons capabilities. In addition, the differences in the approaches of Seoul and Washington towards Pyongyang need to be factored in assessing North-South ties. Well-known is the US preference for taking the Korean reconciliation process in parallel with the Six-Party talks, where as the South Koreans, apparently due to their own security calculations, seem to be inclined to disconnect the two, focussing largely on independently improving bilateral relations with the North.

Railway-Geopolitical Importance

Any underestimation of the geo-political importance of the progressing Inter-Korean ties, especially the North-South railway link, will be out of place. Talks on the railway are not new; the two Koreas had already been discussing it on the basis of their recognition of mutual interests in the project. What appears new is their realisation at this juncture of the high economic and political stakes of each other in the railway; their official views expressed at the time of inauguration of the latest test run that the railway will be a ‘tool for reunification’, aptly explain this aspect. Broader implications however look more important. A fully operational North-South railway connection extending to China and Russia and then via Trans -Siberian Railway to other parts of Europe, will mean formation of a ‘Eurasian Railway’ linking Asia and Europe; this, if materialises, will have a major impact on the geo-politics in North East Asia.

The railway will bring strategic benefits to all powers involved – the two Koreas, Russia, Japan and China. Economy, politics and security will never be the same for them, once the railway is operational. Taking the case of South Korea first, the railway will enable that export dependent nation to achieve not only the much needed improvement of political relations with the North, but also huge savings when compared to the high cost involved in its traditional shipments to Europe via Suez. For the DPRK, the Asia-Europe rail transport through its territory could provide valuable revenue earnings, invigorate the local economy and thereby contribute to internal stability. On the part of Russia, its role as ‘Eurasian bridge’ could particularly be useful in improving the economy of its backward eastern regions and strengthening regional security. Japan may also benefit from the Eurasian Railway in the matter of transport of its goods to Europe.

China’s Views

The question as to how China, the only country enjoying leverage against the DPRK, views the latest developments in the Inter-Korean ties, particularly the railway link, is bound to attract wide attention. While there has so far been no official comment, observations made in a signed article in the authoritative People’s Daily (Chinese language, May 18,2007) tracing the motivating factors for each of the concerned nations, appear significant. On South Korea, the article has said that President Roh’s government there has come under pressure to prove the correctness of its ‘sunshine’ policy towards the DPRK, at a time when next presidential elections are due in that country by end of the year. By speeding up the process for railway connection with the North, Roh is creating conditions for the continuation of ‘sunshine’ policy by the next government.

As second point, the People’s Daily has found that the ROK is ‘worried’ about the recent series of separate parleys and development of close contacts between the US and the DPRK, which as perceived by Seoul, are ‘reducing’ the level of the existing authority of the ROK over Korean peninsula affairs. With an eye on maintaining such authority, Seoul is responding with counter-moves like setting up South-North railway and promoting the mechanism of South-North Ministerial-level talks. Thirdly, the railway link in the main would mean for Seoul an opportunity to improve relations with the North. Also, the ROK will greatly benefit from the link in the matters of its despatch of industrial raw material to the DPRK, participation in mineral exploration activities and promotion of the joint KAESONG Industrial Project in the North. The likely huge savings in transporting goods to Europe through the railway, are also in the mind of the ROK, considering the present high shipping and air costs in trading with Europe, the write up pointed out.

On the DPRK , the People’s Daily has commented that Pyongyang has accepted the railway link out of its economic considerations. The DPRK’s another aim is to support the ‘sunshine’ policy of the ruling party in the South and to a certain degree, influence the outcome of the forthcoming Presidential elections in the South, to its political advantage. The North also sees the railway in a strategic sense with an eye on immense benefits from its emergence as a new transport hub, to function as an “Asia-Europe Bridge”. Also China, Japan, Russia and Mongolia will derive advantages from the railway when it becomes permanent.

The People’s Daily concluded by saying that at the moment, the level of mutual trust between the two Koreas remains low. As such, the progress in setting up a permanent North-South railway link will not be fast. Both the sides are bound to face hurdles. It quoted the concerned Minister in the ROK government, as saying that prior to building a permanent railway, “several conditions need to be fulfilled and a longer time may be required to accomplish the task. A permanent railway will have to wait till a solution is found to the nuclear issue and the Korean Peninsula peace mechanisms are placed on a firmer footing”.

Conclusion

The Chinese assessment seems to be valid, as overall, it can not be denied that the key to peace on the Korean peninsula, notwithstanding the emerging positive atmosphere in the North-South relations, lies in the final solution to the North Korean nuclear issue, which concerns a fundamental question – will the DPRK abandon its strategy of keeping nuclear weapons as a guarantee for the country’s preservation? No firm evidences helpful to find an answer, have so far surfaced. The least that can be said is that enormous problems could come in the way of implementing the phase II of the February 13 agreement providing for the DPRK’s disabling all of its nuclear facilities and opening its entire nuclear programme for international verification, in return for the aid of 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil. The situation calls for no undue optimism.

(The writer, Mr.D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. He was formerly Director in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. Email: dsrajan@c3sindia.org, dsrajan@gmail.com)

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