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Kim Jong Il Is Ready to Charm His Neighbors

Asia's geopolitical map could soon be redrawn, but Washington's not paying attention.

| Wed Oct. 5, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Isn't he charming?

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

The United States has long styled itself a Pacific power. It established the model of counterinsurgency in the Philippines in 1899 and defeated the Japanese in World War II. It faced down the Chinese and the North Koreans to keep the Korean peninsula divided in 1950, and it armed the Taiwanese to the teeth. Today, America maintains the most powerful military in the Pacific region, supported by a constellation of military bases, bilateral alliances, and about 100,000 service personnel.

It has, however, reached the high-water mark of its Pacific presence and influence. The geopolitical map is about to be redrawn. Northeast Asia, the area of the world with the greatest concentration of economic and military power, is on the verge of a regional transformation. And the United States, still preoccupied with the Middle East and hobbled by a stalled and stagnating economy, will be the odd man out.

Elections will be part of the change. Next year, South Koreans, Russians, and Taiwanese will all go to the polls. In 2012, the Chinese Communist Party will also ratify its choice of a new leader to take over from President Hu Jintao. He will be the man expected to preside over the country's rise from the number two spot to the pinnacle of the global economy.

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But here's the real surprise in store for Washington. The catalyst of change may turn out to be the country in the region that has so far changed the least: North Korea. In 2012, the North Korean government has trumpeted to its people a promise to create kangsong taeguk, or an economically prosperous and militarily strong country. Pyongyang now has to deliver somehow on that promise—at a time of food shortages, overall economic stagnation, and political uncertainty. This dream of 2012 is propelling the regime in Pyongyang to shift into diplomatic high gear, and that, in turn, is already creating enormous opportunities for key Pacific powers.

Washington, which has focused for years on North Korea's small but developing nuclear arsenal, has barely been paying attention to the larger developments in Asia. Nor will Asia's looming transformation be a hot topic in our own presidential election next year. We'll be arguing about jobs, health care, and whether the president is a socialist or his Republican challenger a nutcase. Aside from some ritual China-bashing, Asia will merit little mention.

President Obama, anxious about giving ammunition to his opponent, will be loath to fiddle with Asia policy, which is already on autopilot. So while others scramble to remake East Asia, the United States will be suffering from its own peculiar form of continental drift.


Pyongyang Turns on the Charm

On April 15, 1912, in an obscure spot in the Japanese empire, a baby was born to a Christian family proud of its Korean heritage. The 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder and dynastic leader, is coming up next year. Ordinarily, such an event would be of little importance to anyone other than 24 million North Koreans and a scattering of Koreans elsewhere. But this centennial also marks the date by which the North Korean regime has promised to finally turn things around.

Despite its pretensions to self-reliance, Pyongyang has amply proven that it can only get by with a lot of help from its friends. Until recently, however, North Korea was not exactly playing well with others.

It responded in a particularly hardline fashion, for instance, to the more hawkish policies adopted by new South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, when he took office in February 2008. The shooting of a South Korean tourist at the Mount Kumgang resort that July, the sinking of the South Korean naval ship the Cheonan in March 2010 (Pyongyang still claims it was not the culprit), and the shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island later that year all accelerated a tailspin in north-south relations. During this period, the North tested a second nuclear device, prompting even its closest ally, China, to react in disgust and support a U.N. declaration of condemnation. Pyongyang also managed to further alienate Washington by revealing in 2010 that it was indeed pursuing a program to produce highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium, something it had long denied.

These actions had painful economic consequences. South Korea cancelled almost all forms of cooperation. The North's second nuclear test scotched any incipient economic rapprochement with the United States. (The Bush administration had removed North Korea from its terrorism list, and there had been hints that other longstanding sanctions might sooner or later be dropped as part of a warming in relations.)

Only the North's relationship with China was unaffected, largely because Beijing is gobbling up significant quantities of valuable minerals and securing access to ports in exchange for just enough food and energy to keep the country on life support and the regime afloat. Between 2006 and 2009, an already anemic North Korean economy contracted, and chronic food shortages again became acute.

To these economic travails must be added political ones. The country's leadership is long past retirement, with 70-year-old leader Kim Jong Il younger than most of the rest of the ruling elite. He has designated his youngest son, Kim Jeong Eun, as his successor, but the only thing that this mystery boy seems to have going for him is his resemblance to his grandfather, Kim Il Sung.

Still, North Korea seems no closer to full-scale collapse today than during previous crises—like the devastating famine of the mid-1990s. A thoroughly repressive state and zero civil society seem to insure that no color revolution or "Pyongyang Spring" is in the offing. Waiting for the North Korean regime to go gently into the night is like waiting for Godot.

But that doesn't mean change isn't in the air. To jumpstart its bedraggled economy and provide a political boost for the next leader in the year of kangsong taeguk, North Korea is suddenly in a let's-make-a-deal mode.

Kim Jong Il's recent visit to Siberia to meet Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, for instance, raised a few knowledgeable eyebrows. Conferring at a Russian military base near Lake Baikal, for the first time in a long while the North Korean leader even raised the possibility of a moratorium on nuclear weapons production and testing. More substantially, he concluded a preliminary agreement on a natural gas pipeline that could in itself begin to transform the politics of the region. It would transfer gas from the energy-rich Russian Far East through North Korea to economically booming but energy-hungry South Korea. The deal could net Pyongyang as much as $100 million a year.

The North's new charm offensive wouldn't have a hope in hell of succeeding if a similar change of heart weren't also underway in the South.

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