- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2003

Having lived and served in North Korea at two occasions and followed the country for 30 years, the most profound impression I have kept from innumerable discussions and negotiations with North Koreans is of the consequences of centuries of isolation. Korea was a vassal state of China until the late 19th century, and refused to admit foreigners. Then it became a Japanese colony and the isolation was, if possible, even more severe until 1945. Then, South Korea was integrated in world politics and became a parliamentary democracy, but the North continued its isolation, locked up in the communist orbit. Knowledge of the outside world is negligible in North Korea; understanding of it is plainly absent.
For lack of competition, ancient East Asian beliefs alone survived and are, because of isolation, believed to be the common heritage of all mankind. North Korea became a Confucian museum, covered by a thick but superficial layer of Marxism-Leninism's red paint. Confucianism imbued the people with a conviction of being morally superior to others especially to South Koreans, while communism taught them that "scientific socialism" had given them the keys to the future.
In North Korea, history begins with Kim Il Sung. Apart from arbitrary flashes of heroic resistance (purportedly performed by Kim's ancestors) against colonialists and capitalists (America and Japan), the nation has no conscious past. The result is a people in full armor of impregnable self-assurance as the possessors of morality, truth and the future. You cannot argue with them because they don't bother to reply they ignore your reasoning. It is therefore best to forget about looking for verbal compromises, and instead concentrate negotiations on determined and concrete practical measures.
The outcome of the Korean War was consequently seen as a temporary victory for the forces representing the dustbin of history and defeat of the side of morals, truth, etc. The rulers in Seoul are seen as only a U.S. puppet government, not worthy of respect. The two parties to the Korean war, according to Pyongyang, were the U.S. and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), full stop. For half a century, a leading aim of Pyongyang's foreign policy has been stubbornly demanding to be recognized by Washington as its exclusive negotiating partner. It was, of course denied this until the catastrophe of the 1990s made it unavoidable to enter into discussions on the KEDO project, and bilateral contacts were finally taken up.
The revival of the issues of the nuclear reactor and missile launching consequently testifies simply to Pyongyang's eager wish to renew fresh bilateral contacts with Washington, and all self-appointed, benevolent mediators are rejected as immoral. To this perennial wish should also be added the urgent need of oil. Lack of oil halts tractors in the fields and prevents the distribution of food hence the old agreement of receiving oil in exchange for halting the nuclear reactor. Cutting off oil deliveries could logically only lead to the present North Korean reaction blackmail.
Media articles have urged China to use its influence over Pyongyang. Quite right, China is the only power able to do so. China is the only exception to the age-old North Korean isolation. For North Koreans, China is their frame of reference, the whole known world. It saved them in 1950, and now prevents the DPRK from collapsing. It must never be overlooked that China has, though grudgingly, accepted concessions on its own territory like Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, but twice gone to war over the control over northern Korea, in 1895 and 1950. The Chinese now speak softly and give only hints, just like they did in 1950. They give the North Koreans free hands in details but have clearly shown where the line of trespassing goes. This has been the state of affairs in Korea for at least a thousand years, and everybody is supposed to understand that this remain the case. The North Koreans know the rules of the game since times immemorial, and play by them.
Pyongyang's present trouble making and the absence of Chinese reactions may therefore be a quiet reminder that North Korea lies within Beijing's sphere of influence, and that China retains its control and guarantee over what happens in the area. As the local saying goes on solemn occasions: Beijing and Pyongyang are as close as lips and teeth. We should also be open to the likelihood of the Korean conflict being solved according to principles other than clear-cut Western style agreements. For Westerners, black and white, light and darkness are in opposition. In the Far East, Yin and Yang are seen as complimentary.

Ambassador Erik Cornell is president of Cornell Caspian Consulting, LLC. He was Sweden's chief of mission in Pyongyang 1975-77 and 1988, and is the author of "North Korea under Communism."


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