JEJUDO ISLAND ― The reemergence of the Cold-War political structure amid the East-West standoff over the Ukraine crisis could benefit North Korea as it would put the isolated state under the protective umbrella of one of the two competing blocs, said a North Korea expert.
During an interview with The Korea Herald, Rudiger Frank, professor at the University of Vienna, also pointed out that "Cold War 2.0" would pose a policy challenge to South Korea as it would limit Seoul's bilateral diplomacy with Pyongyang.
"Whatever happens between the two Koreas will, like in the first Cold War, be a matter of principle, and a dealing between the two blocs, not just between the two Koreas," he said during the interview on the sidelines of the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity.
"Obviously, that would reduce the manoeuvring space for the South Korean government."
Noting that Seoul's North Korea policy has swung from one extreme to another on the political spectrum, the professor also stressed the need to forge national consensus and a long-term, bipartisan policy to pursue reunification.
The following is an excerpt from the interview with Dr. Frank.
The Korea Herald: Why do you think North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with his secret ambitions, does not seem to care much about the external relations when his regime argues it cares about improving the economy and the livelihoods of his starving people?
Rudiger Frank: Because he knows that economic relations is a double-edged sword. It is beneficial because it brings money into your country, but it also creates dependency. He cares about dependency on countries that are his political adversaries like South Korea and the US Japan is so-so.
You see that they are taking new steps toward normalization. I think this is clearly driven by a desire for economic cooperation, but of course in order to put political pressure on South Korea and the US And Kim Jong-un's major economic partner is China and that does work very well.
I think it works too well that Kim is very worried about the fact that his economy, foreign trade, is very strongly dependent on China. So they are trying a diversification strategy. So expanding economic contacts with other countries is also a strategic decision.
KH: Pyongyang wants the resumption of the six-party talks. Do you think the North is sincere in its intentions? Do you think the North will ever be willing to bargain away its nuclear programme?
Frank: I think North Koreans are really benefitting from the current global political situation, especially the standoff between the US and Russia in Ukraine. The six party talks have been initiated with the logic on the North Korean side that it is "North Korea, China and Russia" versus "the US, Japan plus South Korea."
And that didn't play out because at the end of the day, it was North Korea versus the US, Japan and South Korea. Russia would do very little, and China would be kind of reluctant. Now, the situation has changed. We are returned to Cold War 2.0 and in that situation, North Korea would feel much more safe and secure.
This is why they don't mind resuming the six-party talks in order to give them diplomatic recognition, in order to let them have a channel for bilateral talks with the US I don't think that would lead to denuclearization. They might agree to some freeze or some inspection or something, but they will never ever give up nuclear weapons, at least in the foreseeable future.
KH: Can you be more specific about how Pyongyang benefits from the conflict over the Ukraine crisis?
Frank: That is because North Korea has, for the last 10 or 15 years, been more or less alone ― a small country fighting for its interests with no real supporter. Few countries are willing to support North Korea, but we now see the emergence of camps again.
Supporting North Korea becomes a matter of principle and it is detached from the actual character of the country. It becomes more of a matter of whatever Americans do has to be countered. So I think this is basically what North Korea benefits from. It will move back to the umbrella of the larger-scale conflict and we will participate in one side and therefore benefit from the protection and support.
KH: What do you think about South Korea's current policy toward the North?
Frank: South Korea is in a very difficult situation. I think time is not on South Korea's side. That is a bit of problem. First, there is this reemergence of the two competing blocs, and if this process will be concluded, then North Korea will be much safer than it used to be and South Korea will have much less room for bilateral pressure on North Korea. Furthermore, South Korea will be under a lot of pressure to join China actually, if it would come to such a confrontation.
If you look at the data, South Korea is very closely connected to China, and the dependency is even growing. Geographically, it is very difficult to really oppose China. There is a chance that Americans, at some point, will make a strategic decision to give up Korea.
They have not yet made the decision, and they have denied that they will ever do it. But if you look back in history, the Korean War started more or less with the Acheson Doctrine where the Americans deliberately or accidentally announced that they focused on Japan.
This might very well happen again. And in that case, South Korea is in a very unpleasant situation. So the question is how you deal with the situation today… difficult.
KH: Then, what advice would you like to give to Seoul?
Frank: Right now, after North Korea has called the South Korean president such bad names, I think it would be very complicated to have a meaningful bilateral contact.
I think what South Korea should do is try to avoid the Cold War 2.0 scenario where it has to make a decision between China and the US In a way, we, in Europe, are exactly in the same position. It is the decision that we can't simply make without losing. Either way, you decide to lose. So, the way out is to avoid making that decision after all.
In East Asia, it means forming a regional alliance without China and without the US, but otherwise including almost everybody including North Korea as a new regional strong organisation or institution. And that would solve the two problems at the same time.
That would provide a forum for dialogue with North Korea without necessarily being bilateral. It is a bilateral within the multilateral context, which is easier and also politically in terms of domestic politics in South Korea as well ― because the president will be really criticised if she would talk to North Korea right now. On the other hand, she would also be criticised if she doesn't talk.
And the other thing is that if Northeast Asian and Southeast Asian countries find a way to combine their forces, it would be more difficult for big powers to ask every single one of them to join their sides. They can say, "No, we are actually part of the East Asian union and in that capacity, we will form a strategic partnership with you, but we will not join any camp."
Such an East Asian Union should not include the US or China because that would make the whole thing obsolete, but it should definitely include the countries of the ASEAN, Mongolia, South Korea, North Korea and Japan and perhaps even Russia, but that is a big question mark. In any case, I think we should never forget that Russia is also an East Asian country.
KH: Do you think Seoul should exert more flexibility in its North Korea policy? Do you think it has to lift anti-Pyongyang sanctions and resume the long-stalled tours to Mount Geumgangsan?
Frank: If that would only be foreign policy, I would say, "Yes, of course." The problem is that South Korea also has its domestic policy and the South Korean president has to respond to the desire of his voters.
People in South Korea are not happy about North Korea's behaviour and they are unhappy about the missing resolution about the Cheonan sinking and shelling of Yeonpyeongdo Island and also the killing of a tourist in Mount Geumgangsan in 2008. I think right now this is very difficult unless North Korea shows some reconciliatory steps.
My advice for the South Korean government for the future is to avoid limiting its options by making such strong statements including "never" or "only if." This sounds like pressure on North Korea, but in fact, it limits the South Korean government's options.
Because once you draw a red line, it is a red line not only for the other side, but also a red line for itself. We know that the reunification is a goal for the future and the reunification will include some talks and negotiations. And anything that negatively affects the foundation for talks should be avoided. I think even criticism should be made in a way that leaves the way out for the South Korean government.
KH: President Park Geun-hye has stressed reunification, but Pyongyang feels negatively about it. Do you think it was a mistake for Park to present her wish for reunification?
Frank: I think it is never a mistake to talk about reunification because reunification is something that has to happen and will happen. North Korea does not trust South Korea at all. So they look very closely at the actual statements the South Korean president makes regarding reunification.
And you know I have been very critical of the Dresden speech of President Park Geun-hye because of the symbolism it included. And that symbolism supports North Korea's belief that South Korea's idea of reunification is unification by absorption. And frankly, if I listen to people in South Korea, I think that is what the majority still thinks.
So under this condition, it is no surprise that North Korea reacts negatively. So trust building would actually include efforts to convince North Korea that unification by absorption is not what the South Korean side desires, but they would not believe it. Therefore, I believe a certain return to (former President) Kim Dae-jung's sunshine policy with a "long-term" vision would be necessary.
Unfortunately in our times, considering the five-year presidency, people have no patience. Whatever you do, you have to finish it within those five years. If you start one year after your presidency started, then you have to finish it within four years and if you include the lame-duck period of one year, then you have to finish it in three years.
This is like nothing. I think a long-term, bipartisan strategy regardless of who is the president, this is really important for South Korea ― not just another initiative by another president. It just gives North Korea an edge over South Korea because North Korea has a long-term strategy and policy and South Korea has consecutive short-term policies. I just believe how that discussion is being led in South Korea is too extreme.
It is either us against them, progressives against conservatives. Reunification is a national task and it is a task the whole nation should work together rather than fighting against one another.
KH: What do you think about China's role in terms of reining in North Korea's aberrant behaviour?
Frank: China is in a very complicated situation. The world believes that China is kind of a mentor for North Korea. This is not true. North Korea has always been very careful to avoid a very strong dependency on China and the more they are now economically dependent, the more they are willing to distance themselves politically. "Juche (North Korea's national ideology meaning self-reliance)" ― it is not just an empty word.
Sometimes, I feel North Korea even actively plays that part to put pressure on China. They know that whatever they do, China would be criticised for it.
I believe China has been pursuing a policy of reform in North Korea for a long time. They just don't do it by a megaphone diplomacy, but they do it by example, for example by inviting North Koreans to Shenyang, Shanghai and etc.
They just showed them by sending investment in North Korea. And if you go to North Korea, it is really remarkable to see all those joint ventures coming up. This is where North Koreans learn from China on a daily basis. This is how China intends to slowly but gradually, steadily change North Korea.
In terms of big politics, China is in a very difficult situation. If China wants to establish itself as a regional leader, they have to show a sense of responsibility towards their friends and allies.
So therefore, China cannot afford to pressure North Korea too much because then, other countries, who are potential allies of China, will become more reluctant to cooperate with China. We never should lose out of sight that big picture. The big picture is the strategic competition between China and the US in East Asia and this is what really matters. North Korea is just part of this.
China wants to be seen as a reliable partner. It is difficult enough because of the South China Sea and all those conflicts. Therefore, they cannot afford to put more pressure on North Korea because then their enemies in the region would say, "Look this is how China treats its allies. That is how they treat their allies if they don't do what China wants.
If we break our alliance with the US join China, this is going to happen for us as well." This is limiting China's options, binding their hands.
● Rudiger Frank is a professor in the department of East Asian studies at the University of Vienna. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Korea University and at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
● Prior to his appointment at the University of Vienna, he taught at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in New York from 2002-2003.
● He was born and raised in East Germany and the Soviet Union, and spent one semester as a language student at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang from 1991-1992. He is one of the rare experts who has experienced the German, Soviet and North Korean socialist systems.
● He received a master's degree in Korean studies, economics and international relations at Humboldt University of Berlin and a Ph.D. in economics from Mercator-University in Duisburg.