Winds of Change: The Good News Coming from North Korea

Prof. Giancarlo Elia Valori is optimistic about the talks between the two Koreas that began on Tuesday, led on the North's side by Ri Su-Yong, President of the Diplomatic Committee of the Supreme People's Assembly and "a high-profile institutional leader who enjoys Kim Jong-un’s full trust." Opinion

Ri Su-Yong (Photo: AP)

The positive signs currently coming from the Korean Peninsula, and especially from North Korea, are definitely encouraging.

In fact, the 23rd Winter Olympics, scheduled for February 9-25, will take place in the Pyeongchang County, which is located in South Korea, or in what is officially called the Republic of Korea.

Since the designation of South Korea in June 2017, the International Olympic Committee has always said explicitly it wanted North Korea to participate officially in the Winter Olympics. Hence, it has obviously welcomed – although with some surprise – North Korea’s announcement of the "probable" sending of a small team of ice skaters.

Indeed, North Korea’s luge athletes and skiers had not technically qualified for the Olympics.

From the beginning, South Korea had proposed a joint team for all the specialties in South Korea’s Olympics. It had also suggested to North Korea a joint women's team for ice hockey, as well as the sharing of costs for the participation of both countries in the 23rd Winter Olympics of Pyeongchang – and indeed the latter has been an open issue since December 2014.

At that time North Korea had refused only for organizational time reasons, without ever raising matters of principle – and this is by no means of secondary importance.

For obvious reasons of national dignity, North Korea has explicitly refused to share the participation and organization costs.

It is worth recalling that, from the very beginning, North Korea had strongly supported only the candidacy of South Korea to host the 23rd Winter Olympics of 2018.

Hence, the Winter Olympics will see the participation of the North Korean athletes Ryom-Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik, who had both qualified for the 2018 Olympics during the competitions held in Oberstdorf, Germany, in September 2017.

Later some problems arose in the relations between the North Korean Olympic Committee and the Lausanne’s International Olympic Committee, the highest body responsible for world sport.

However, it was the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, who personally announced the possibility of sending North Korea’s athletes to the 23rd Winter Olympics in South Korea – explicit permission given on a special and highly symbolic occasion, namely the speech delivered by the Supreme Leader for the New Year.

The primary theme of the North Korean Supreme Leader is "national pride," which counts very much for both countries – the most tragic relic of the old Cold War, a silly conflict that both Koreas want to overcome, albeit in a different way.

From this viewpoint, I believe that Mao Zedong’s theory of the Cold War as a "paper tiger" holds true for both Koreas.

However, the way of overcoming it is often not too different.

Hence, the meetings between the two Koreas to tackle the issue of North Korea’s participation in the 23rd Winter Olympics were scheduled for January 9.

Both Koreas are fully aware – even in the smallest political, symbolic, and ceremonial details – of what is really at stake in this negotiation, which is only apparently a sporting negotiation.

What is at stake is an agreement between the two Koreas before solving, once and for, all with Japan, Russia, the United States and China, the issue of North Korea’s full return – with equal dignity – onto the international scene and hence onto the world market.

If all goes well, in the coming years we can probably talk about a strategic and military sharing between South and North Korea – the establishment of a "nuclear and chemical-bacteriological potential" throughout the Korean peninsula, whose keys will also be held by Japan, Russia and probably the United States, if it does not make further mistakes.

As usual, the EU will have a wait-and-see attitude, believing to have a role to play in the negotiations while only practicing nursemaid diplomacy – thus ridiculously getting worked up for no purpose and pretending to have powers it has not – by probably providing "humanitarian aid" to the parties (aid possibly not even required by them).

We had already said so on other occasions in the past when no one was even barely thinking about that. We had referred above all to the joint exercises between Russian and Chinese forces carried out last November in the Sea of Okhotsk. For both China and Russia, that sea is the optimal area to launch attacks on US bases in the Pacific.

The message was very clear: to quickly and strategically regionalize the Korean issue; to strengthen Russia’s and China’s ties with both of the Koreas; to make the United States leave all hope regarding the disagreements between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping that can never be a useful wedge for the United States.

Hence, a further message to the United States making it clear that any further increase in the US military presence in South Korea would be unaccepted either by Russia or by the People's Republic of China. And not as protectors of North Korea, but as powers directly bordering on a nuclearized area.

We have already said so, but it is worth repeating it: China does not accept in any way a US military hegemony canceling North Korea’s nuclear and conventional potential – the only possible rampart between China and South Korea, namely a US staunch ally. But, in economic terms, also China’s ally.

The US military balance in the region is well known: 35,000 North American soldiers and officers in South Korea; 40,000 in Japan; nearly 4,000 in Guam, a small island 2,100 kilometers away from Pyongyang, with a surface of only 544 square kilometers.

Not to mention the five US bases in the Philippines, as well as the four US warships based in Singapore, in addition to the overflight and docking permits granted by Thailand to the North American forces.

It is also worth recalling the US significant strategic positioning in the Hawaiian islands, with further 400,000 soldiers, sailors and officers and as many as 200 military ships available, with over 1,000 thousand warplanes of various sizes and functions stationed in the atoll that saw the successful surprise attack by the Japanese Admiral Togo.

There is also the US naval base in Kadena, on the island of Okinawa, as well as some stealth bases, also located in the Japanese archipelago.

Hence, it should be honestly said to our US friends that the fact that North Korea feels to be strategically closed and severely threatened is not paranoia of North Korea’s ruling class – it is an incontrovertible fact.

To do what? "To bring democracy" to North Korea? Most of the mistrust with which North Korea looks to US statements regards, in fact, the unpredictable, self-destructive and basically improper behavior the United States had with Saddam’s Iraq at first and with Gaddafi's Libya later.

North Korea does not want "Korean" springs, characterized by forked tongues, leaving only rubble and splitting the old national units – well tried and tested by history – for a crazy project of continuous war.

Furthermore, China did not even accept that the United States naively puts pressures on it so as to diminish the significance and scope of the North Korean nuclear missile program.

As happens in the whole Chinese and Eastern sapiential tradition, China certainly does not want to be "second" to the United States.

And, despite recent coldness, it does not even want to appear hostile or distant from North Korea, an ancient "brother country" that Xi Jinping's leadership will never leave in Western hands.

Conversely, if and when the global equilibria allow it, China may want a rational, balanced reduction of North Korea’s nuclear umbrella.

This is meant to reduce a real danger of unwanted or casual attack and to show benevolence – when needed – vis-à-vis South Korea and North America.

Hence the North Korean nuclear system is a bargaining chip that China will use at its poker table, but never against the old North Korean "comrades" that, indeed, could obtain good economic advantages from this balanced reduction of the nuclear missile and bacteriological-chemical potential, without particular reductions in the value of their threat south-eastwards.

China accounts and will account in the future for over 90% of North Korea’s trade with the other countries but – as excellent readers of Marx’s works – the Chinese never behave like "common materialists" in the analysis of international relations.

Ironically for ideologies, which have never died, currently only the big business liberals think in terms which were typical of the Communist vulgate.

Moreover, there is a clear message coming from the latest joint Russian-Chinese sea operations.

The clear strategic message that we hope the United States will understand is that the first US attack parade will be almost entirely covered by the Russian-Chinese threat or reaction, which will probably oppose and cancel it before its reaching North Korean waters. Conversely, Russia and China will leave North Korea’s response on Guam free and, in all likelihood, on other US bases in the Pacific – a response which will be fully developed by North Korea alone.

Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, who has always been in favor of negotiations with North Korea, knows all too well to what extent it is important for the United States not to trigger an uncontrollable and useless chain reaction in Southeast Asia – a region that has never brought luck to the United States.

Why? To set fire – without any result for the United States, if not ashes – to the whole Central Asian region and get to war on the Russian-Chinese land borders?

May God protect them.

Later Russia and China will protect North Korea diplomatically, at the level of international organizations, thus avoiding the worst of the new sanctions.

Or, even worse, the excessive reactions of some US late restless aides, of those who – as has already happened in the EU – want to repeat the Cold War at the new borders of the Russian Federation.

They emasculate themselves on their own, at least as far as the energy market is concerned and hence – almost without realizing it – they will find themselves recreating a very costly dependence only on the United States, which will certainly make no concessions or discounts for the EU powerless naivety.

Hence, currently the real problem is how to get out of this second phase of Cold War – and the key is to be found once again in the Korean peninsula.

If all those who will be called upon to deal with North Korea heal the Cold War wound where it was created (in fact, the Berlin Wall came later), namely at the 38th parallel, many things will change and not only in Southeast Asia.

South Korea will never want to become a nuclear ossuary to cover the North Korean subsequent attacks on the US nuclear parade and its military positions and installations in the region.

Furthermore, Russia and China will never accept a US military operation before or after the Panmunjom line, which is still technically a "ceasefire."

Nevertheless, both Russia and China will quickly accept the proposal to reduce the relevance of the North Korean nuclear apparatus, if there are rational and verifiable exchanges.

However, in this new triangulation, even North Korea must reap its benefits, which could be ensured by a new treaty that should make North Korea enter the world market without hesitations, dissimulations, and pretenses and without post-factum punishments. Why?

Obviously, there should also be a treaty for mutual recognition between the United States and North Korea, in addition to the restoration of a long, but credible, sequence of joint actions between South and North Korea.

At the end of the diplomatic negotiation, the United States should be in a position to accept a North Korean share of total defense to be defined.

While, at the same time, North Korea shall agree on a wide secondary protection area for its own defense apparatus, namely a new Panmunjom line.

As already recently noted, this would mean strong gradual integration with the Russian and Chinese economies, just now that the great ride of the new Silk Road is beginning westwards.

However, I have recently become very optimistic about the whole North Korean issue.

It had happened when I learned that the negotiation, which started with the symbolic and highly political Olympic issue, are led for North Korea by Ri Su-Yong, also known as Ri Chol. A high-profile institutional leader who enjoys Kim Jong-un’s full trust – a diplomat with great culture and experience about Western and Eastern issues.

He speaks excellent French, and his professional experiences have led him to learn the German language very well. Obviously, his English is perfect. He served as Minister for Foreign Affairs from April 2014 until May 2016 – and this is the first aspect to consider.

Ri is a refined weaver and negotiator, as happened in the diplomatic tradition of the countries born from the continuity and break with Marxism, which was represented by the creation of the Third Leninist International.

He is a tireless man, without the inflexibility that characterized many Eastern diplomats, at least those I met when Italy still had a foreign policy – which is no longer the case.

A "revolution against Capital," against the Third International just to use the title of an old and perhaps still famous article by Antonio Gramsci on the "New Order."

In this respect, we note that by Capital we only mean the title of Karl Marx’s fundamental work, not one of the means of production that Marxism has always considered – with some exaggeration, but also with some good intuitions – a means of production very different from the others.

However, these are just digressions typical of an economist.

Ri was also Vice-President of the Committee for Investment and Joint Ventures, as well as Vice-President of the Communications Committee of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

He also had another key post in the North Korean’s political system, which is based on "collaborative competition" among leaders, created especially in the institutions for training and selecting the North Korean ruling class – an "alternate" candidate of the Party’s Central Committee, a role never to be forgotten in a Third International system.

He also held another important post, namely Vice-Director of the Organization and Guidance Department, the control axis with which Kim Jong-un, but also his predecessors, spoke with the Party’s Leadership, thus controlling it.

In short, he is Kim Jong-un's real trusted man, and this makes us realize how important the negotiations that began on January 9 are for North Korea’s leadership.

We can be certain that, from the beginning, the negotiations will get off track, albeit without exaggerating.

The issue lies above all in talking by symbols and signs – just as the Gods of the ancient Latins did, according to Lucretius, per symbolum et per aenigmate.

For several years, Ri Chol also served as Ambassador to Switzerland, the country in which also Kim Jong-un studied. It is also worth recalling that he was also the Supreme Leader’s official representative in the EU, as well as a prudent and very cautious administrator of Kim Jong-Il's personal assets and financial affairs. Kim Jong-un is Kim Jong-Il's third son.

Ri Su-Yong was born in 1940. Hence, he is a man of experience, without the useless haste typical of young people. Indeed, he does not look his age.

Therefore, he had elitist and revolutionary training, but he was never the expression of a family or group tradition existing before the Party, nor was he the son of a trusted official.

In fact, he studied at the Revolutionary School of Mangyo'ndae and later at the Namsan School where he was Kim Jong-Il’s classmate. Later, Ri went to study at the Kim Il Sung University and probably finished his studies at the University of Moscow.

Soon after completing his studies, he started to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1972, he was already Head of a Ministry Desk. Two years later, he became Director General of the Office for Protocol and International Organizations.

After the Party’s Sixth Congress held in October 1980, Ri became one of the deputy-Directors of Kim Jong-Il's Personal Secretary – a real key post.

At the same time, he took up the post of Vice-Director of the Party's Organization and Guidance Department and, again in 1980, he was appointed Ambassador to Geneva.

It is therefore by no mere coincidence that Ri was sent to represent his country in the capital city of International Organizations which, as in the past, are the favorite ground of confrontation or negotiation for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

In Switzerland, he worked for the entire community of North Korean Party Leaders, in addition to taking care of the personal – and hence political – interest and affairs of both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il.

Hence, we can say that Ri has also become Kim Jong-un’s trusted man, the essential advisor, the one who knows how to speak to the Westerners, to North Korea’s Friends and to the opponents.

Ri's career continued in 1987 when he became Permanent Representative to the United Nations Mission in Geneva. He was later recalled to his home country in March 2010 and appointed Ambassador to Iran, a place of absolute importance for those who know the particular relations existing between North Korea and Iran.

Upon returning to North Korea after his Iranian mission, Ri began working in the Supreme Leader’s Personal Secretary’s Office.

Finally, he led – with absolute correctness, propriety, wisdom and refined knowledge of Western laws and customs – the organization attracting capital into the Northeastern region of the country.

Hence, it is easy to understand the emphasis laid by Kim Jong-un on the new negotiations that started yesterday.

It is worth recalling that in 2014, Ri paid, for the first time, an official visit to India, in his capacity as Foreign Minister. He was also elected as a full member of the Party’s Politburo by the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea – another extremely important post for those who know the particular North Korean power elite.

It is also worth noting that the Party always prevails over the State in the political regimes resulting from the "revolution against Capital" that created the Third International.

Hence something different from traditional Marxism which – according to the so-called Austro-Marxism, much loved and studied by Giuseppe Saragat – would have resulted in social democracy.

Ri is also Head of the Party’s International Relations Office, and in 2017 he was appointed President of the Diplomatic Committee of the Supreme People's Assembly.

Said Assembly is the only representative House since there is no Senate in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Hence, what would I like to happen if these negotiations were successful – as I sincerely hope – also based on the profile and caliber of the personality to whom North Korea has entrusted this diplomatic round of negotiations?

Firstly, the mutual recognition between North Korea and the United States of America.

Secondly, an agreement between China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the United States for the planned reduction of North Korea’s nuclear missile and bacteriological-chemical saturation. A nuclear missile network that could be controlled by an ad hoc Agency with specific procedures, different and more up-to-date than those used by the IAEA.

Thirdly, an agreement on North Korea’s controlled opening to international capital, with the creation of a North Korean Commission for Foreign Exchange, with a view to avoiding speculative transactions such as those that characterized Russia after the CPSU’s fall.

Fourthly, a fully operational plan of targeted foreign investment for the autonomous economic zones and later for the whole North Korea.

Considering Ri Su-Yong’ skills, if all goes well, we could reach these results sooner than expected.