The diplomatic corner: The G20 in the shadow of North Korea


Like many other world-viewers, I watched the G-20 unfold in beautiful settings in Seoul. World leaders passing down red carpets, handshakes and smiles. Yet all the expensive stage setting for a get-together of so many world leaders makes one ponder the costs. Apparently, Seoul shouldn't have been as expensive as the Toronto G-20. Still, it conveys even greater responsibility for this new global forum to provide solutions that make a difference for ordinary people's lives and genuinely improving global governance.

And one intractable trouble spot is looming just 70 kilometres away from the ultra-modern setting of Seoul. Here is the frontier with North Korea, heavily guarded with hundreds of thousands of soldiers lined up in Cold war confrontation style. I have visited the border area several times (also coming from the North side). The short drive from Seoul makes it feel like a quick time-travel to another era.

There were rumours of possible disruption of the G-20 Summit by North Korea. It didn't happen. There was shooting at the border in the weeks preceding the summit which made nerves tick. It caught my attention of news stories of a plan by North Korea to float biochemical bombs over the border. For most readers, it probably just sounds bizarre and off course potentially dangerous if carried through. Yet in the local context, civic groups in the South have used balloons to send leaflet with information from the outside world over the border into North Korea, followed by very heavy-handed North Korean responses.

Back to how it matters for all of us. North Korea is a continuing complete failure of regional and global governance. It is continuing its development of nuclear production in defiance of the international community. It is mistreating its population - a new Amnesty report shows that half of children under five suffer from malnutrition. WHO estimates that North Korea is the country that spends the smallest amount on health care, with a budget of less than a dollar for every North Korean citizen on a year.

What to do? USA and its allies in the region have tried with containment and the current sanctions without much success. Additionally, China has tried to convince North Korea to economic opening up emulating Chinese economic reform. This has also fallen on hard ground with a regime that prioritises regime survival high above economic prosperity. The six Party Talks -consisting of China, Russia, South and North Korea, and Japan - set up as the multilateral solution to improve the situation, are in hibernation.

The situation looks even more tied into a Gordian knot after the US mid-term elections and with succession looming in North Korea. Obama did want to reach out in an engagement policy true to his pre-election promise of speaking to his enemies (see my post on East Asia forum on this). North Korea made it quite impossible for Obama to move into talks after the North Korean nuclear testing in 2009. And now Congress, Republican-led, as in 1994 under Clinton, will prevent any full-blown engagement policy. North Korea on its side is in an uncertain phase with a still ill-defined succession from Kim Jong-il to the mysterious son, Kim Jong-eun.

So beyond the handshakes and limelight of the G20 in Seoul, the shadowy state just a few dozen kilometres to the north is a harsh reminder that multilateralism and effective global governance requires far more than well-organised and well-intentioned meetings.

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