Kim Jong-il Plays Democratic Politics

Korea Times
David Kang

There has been widespread speculation as to why, after repeated calls for a summit by South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, Kim Jong-il decided to meet at this time.

Some have argued that Kim is only meeting because of improved U.S.-North Korean relations. Others feel that Kim hopes to gain further aid and trade from South Korea.

Although we do not know the exact reasons, one possibility is that Kim sees two major elections looming on the horizon: the South Korean and U.S. presidential elections.

A summit provides Kim the opportunity to influence these elections. Were Kim to wait until there were new presidents in both countries, his influence on the new presidents’ goals and strategies would be minimized.

As to South Korea, it is quite likely that Kim Jong-il hopes be an influence by presenting a moderate and reasonable image of himself.

Indeed, if Kim can speak the right rhetoric and portray himself as flexible, make a few token concessions to increased economic or social exchanges with South Korea, and repeats rhetoric about “uri minjok ggiri (we, Koreans, by ourselves),” there is a good chance that many South Koreans will feel reassured and sentiment favoring engagement may solidify.

This would be a good chance of binding the next South Korean administration into continuing its engagement with the North, regardless of who actually wins the presidency.

As for the United States, Kim has less ability to influence the election, simply because Americans pay far less attention to North Korea than they do to other foreign policy issues, such as the continuing troubles in the Middle East.

However, if Kim can present a moderate face, and also help forge a solid consensus in South Korea about the best way to solve the North Korean problem, Kim may be hoping to bind any new U.S. president to a path of reconciliation, as well.

Indeed, many observers think that Kim has already won, simply by agreeing to a summit meeting with Roh. Especially with Roh so clearly hoping to cement his place in history with this summit, they fear that there is little that Kim can do that would harm his image in South Korea.

However, if Kim hopes to be an influence on the presidential election in the south, this presents a genuine opportunity to further expose Kim to pressures and influences of the outside world, which is a move in the right direction.

For decades, the North Korean leadership had only concerned itself with internal regime politics, and even ignored the voices and needs of its own citizens.

If Kim realizes that his image among the South Korean public will have a direct effect on his own rule, this may affect his actions and policies.

In this way, Kim is taking more of a gamble by agreeing to a summit than is generally recognized.

If South Korean sentiment turns against Kim after the summit, this will restrict the new South Korean president’s foreign policy options, and it will also make it harder for Kim to delay, obstruct and avoid dealing with nuclear and other issues.

As such, Roh has more leverage than generally believed, if he is adroit in his negotiations.
If Roh goes into the summit determined to come away with some agreement with the North, he will have no bargaining power whatsoever, and Kim will win. But if Kim is seen by the South Koreans as the one obstructing progress, it will make North Korea’s situation more difficult in the future.

Thus, Roh absolutely must go into the summit prepared to return empty-handed. Only when Roh is prepared to walk away, will he have any leverage on Kim.

Roh must be willing to confront Kim on serious issues, such as the nuclear issue, and press Kim to make a public statement that he supports denuclearization. Ironically, Roh’s reputation may even improve if he can show that he met Kim with a flexible and reasonable set of issues and options.

Roh must also pay attention to not only the public opinion of South Koreans but also the U.S, and in particular the policymakers inside Washington.

Roh needs to realize that managing expectations and framing the summit in a positive way is critical for him to be seen in Washington as enhancing, and not obstructing, the nuclear negotiations.

There is little chance that Washington will allow Roh to set the agenda for denuclearization, as revealed in the embarrassing episode at the recent APEC meeting.

If Roh wanders too far from Washington’s stance, he will not have Washington comply, but rather he will merely be left alone.

Thus, it is critical that Roh and Cheong Wa Dae pay as much attention to how the summit is viewed in Washington as how it is viewed in South Korea.

I am in favor of this summit, only because it further exposes Kim to South Korean public sentiment, and increases the leverage the outside world has on this reclusive regime.

I hope that Roh does not squander his opportunity to further draw out the North Korean leadership and expose them to the outside world.


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