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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOVEMBER 5, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 44

Beyond Groundhog Day
Is this Pyongyang's last chance to end the false starts?

Book Cover
Aidan Foster-Carter
Analyzes Korea at Leeds University in Britain. He has followed North Korean affairs for over 30 years
photo: Asiaweek Pictures

In the film Groundhog Day, a man finds himself trapped in a day which repeats itself over and over again. Observers of North Korea and its relations with the world may well feel caught in the same movie. Everything seems to be déjà vu. Take various recent "breakthroughs." This year, South Korean soccer and basketball teams played in Pyongyang. Great - except we had inter-Korean soccer in 1990. In 1991 a united Korean team won a world table tennis title. And then, nothing. The two Koreas sent separate squads to the 1992 Olympics, and to every international sports meet thereafter. It was back to hostilities as usual.

Or consider Hyundai founder Chung Ju Yung, returning from North Korea with high hopes of making big investments. Good luck to him. Yet equally high hopes were riding on Chung's first trip north - in 1989. But there was no follow-up. Almost a decade passed before the now elderly patriarch was allowed to try again.

Above all, there is the recent lifting of U.S. sanctions in exchange for a moratorium on Pyongyang's missile tests - the first fruit of the Perry process. Ex-Defense Secretary William Perry's long-awaited report has been hailed as the basis of a new relationship with North Korea, which could lead to diplomatic ties. Fine, but strangely familiar. For the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework, which resolved the North Korean nuclear crisis, was meant to lead to just such a wider opening. It didn't.

Indonesia: Unity in Diversity?
Maybe the all-inclusive new government will work. It had better
Call 'Em Wahidisms Quotations: The world according to Gus Dur
Is He Strong Enough? Wahid's health raises concerns
The Fight for Megawati Behind the scenes of the V.P. election
'East Timor Is a Tough Job' Australia's Downer on relations with Asia

ASEAN: An Indochinese Caucus After a conclave in Vientiane, fears of a split

Malaysia: Now, the Sinatra Principle 'We all did it our own way,' croons Mahathir
The Maps to Power Voting districts lay a confusing quilt
Trial by Dirt Anwar's claims fill the court and the media

The Philippines: 'My Ratings Are Down!' Estrada is moving into damage control

Viewpoint: Beyond Groundhog Day Is this Pyongyang's last chance to end the false starts?

Editorial: Dealing with Pyongyang
It is frustrating, but better than letting the country plot in seclusion (10/8/99)

Korea: A Borderline Decision
Behind North Korea's move to push its sea frontier south (10/8/99)

The list goes on. North Korea reportedly wants better ties with Japan. In 1990, the late Shin Kanemaru was Kim Il Sung's honored guest - but eight rounds of talks got nowhere. As for inter-Korean false dawns, take your pick. They kicked off a generation ago, with the 1972 Joint Statement. There were 1985's economic accord (unimplemented) and family reunions (a one-off). Then we had the prime ministers' talks, which in 1991 produced a full agreement - on paper only.

Why these endless false starts? Contrary to popular belief, it isn't all Pyongyang's fault. That Hyundai couldn't start investing in North Korea sooner was mainly because South Korea got cold feet about bankrolling the enemy. If the Agreed Framework didn't usher in a wider U.S.-North Korea honeymoon, it's because that stuck in the craw of hawkish Republicans. And the ups and downs of inter-Korean relations reflect hesitations and U-turns in Seoul as well as Pyongyang.

Will it be different this time? It could be - if Hyundai gets to build its huge export zone near Haeju, just 100 km by sea from Inchon. This is slated to create 200,000 jobs and up to $20 billion in exports (North Korea's current exports total less than $1 billion per year). It could revive not only the comatose Northern economy but the peace process, by creating real win-win mutual prosperity - the aim of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's courageous "sunshine" policy.

When Chung met Kim Jong Il recently, Pyongyang's leader gave the plan his blessing - but asked Hyundai to consider other sites, including Sinuiju on the China border. On Oct. 15, a Hyundai team poised to head north aborted the trip because Pyongyang hadn't sent a list of sites. Is the North stalling? The extra distance to Sinuiju would drive up Hyundai's costs. North Korea's army may have balked at having Hyundai vessels in seas where not long ago it unilaterally proclaimed a new border. Or maybe Kim Jong Il just isn't ready for real business with South Korea - and never will be. True, there is Hyundai's tourism to Mt. Kumgang; but this is a loss-leader, sealed off from wider North Korean society as a vast export zone could not be.

What of the Perry process? His report contains much wisdom - on the need at all costs to avoid war, and for the U.S. and its allies to keep a coherent and consistent stance toward Pyongyang. Yet I fear it is very vulnerable. Despite Perry's pleas for bipartisanship, as elections near the Republicans won't pass up a chance to accuse Clinton of appeasing the North. Another problem is Perry's puzzling failure to include chemical and biological warfare, which Seoul's latest defense white paper sees as a major threat.

All will be well if Pyongyang moves swiftly to address U.S. concerns - by beginning formal, comprehensive dialogue, and making solid concessions to stop developing, testing, and selling missiles. And groundhogs might fly. North Korea is one tough negotiator. On the nuclear issue, it took years to move inches. And it has said repeatedly that while it might be bribed not to sell Scuds to the likes of Iran and Pakistan, it will not give up missiles as such. What if it means it?

I am neither an essentialist who believes North Korea can never change, nor a hawk. There is constant debate in Pyongyang about how to adapt without undermining the regime. Yet it's easier to procrastinate than risk a real process of give and take. Trouble is, the world's patience is not limitless. Kim Jong Il has a unique opportunity to prove himself a great leader by grasping the olive branches held out by the South Korean and U.S. administrations. It's a brief window. If he stalls, both could lose elections next year to hawks. If we are ever to break the spell of Groundhog Day, Pyongyang must for once act fast and positively. Real time does not stand still. This could be its last chance.

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