Continued from Part 2

Tim Beal

Diplomatic recognition is an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of a foreign government, and legitimacy is a key concept in political theory stretching back at least as far as Mencius in about the 4th century BCE. There is a famous passage in the Analects where he discusses the killing of King Zhou (Tchou):

King Hsuan of Ch‘i asked, “Is it true that T‘ang banished Chieh and King Wu marched against Tchou?”

“It is so recorded,” answered Mencius.

“Is regicide permissible?”

“He who mutilates benevolence is a mutilator; he who cripples rightness is a crippler; and a man who is both mutilator and a crippler is an ‘outcast’. I have indeed heard of the punishment of the ‘outcast Tchou’, but I have not heard of any regicide.” (Mencius 1B:8)

Tchou, in the opinion of Mencius, had lost legitimacy – the Mandate of Heaven- and so his killing is not ‘regicide’ but ‘punishment of an outcast’.  And what is a ‘rogue state’ or a ‘pariah’, terms often applied to North Korea in imperial propaganda, but an outcast?

Diplomatic Recognition– the Cornerstone of Legitimacy

The construction of legitimacy, and its loss, vary. The absolutist Wahhabi monarchy of Saudi Arabia regards a democratic, secular Syria an abomination, hence the funnelling of funds, fighters and arms to fight the government of Bashar al Assad.

The US and its allies also regard the Syrian government as illegitimate but for instrumental reasons, despite the rhetoric about democracy and human rights. John Foster Dulles, pre-eminent US Secretary of State in the 1950s (and brother of Allen, the founder of the CIA) said regarding China that recognition is ‘a privilege, never a right’.  He said:

…. diplomatic recognition gives the recognized regime valuable rights and privileges, and, in the world of today, recognition by the United States gives the recipient much added prestige and influence at home and abroad

Accordingly recognition was to be accorded to those governments of which the US approved (and over which it had some control) and denied to those who were independent and resisted the US.  In the event, of course, the US did recognize China, but this was part of Kissinger’s playing of ‘the China card’ against the Soviet Union, which was then seen as the main obstacle to US hegemony.

There are good practical reasons for diplomatic recognition because it provides a mechanism for communication between states, and that mechanism increases in importance if there is hostility between them. It is the backbone of the Westphalian system of independent states, equal in sovereignty, which evolved in Europe in the 17th century and is the basis of the modern United Nations. Clearly diplomatic recognition should be the default position, but the United States, as global hegemon, regards recognition and its implication of legitimacy a privilege that it alone can bestow.

Nothing new in that as it is the way empires have traditionally behaved, but it is at variance with the norms of modern international relations and of the United Nations. If a government is deemed to be illegitimate then, as in the case of Syria, the US feels that it can intervene militarily, train and fund rebel groups and drop bombs all in clear violation of international law and the Charter of the United Nations.  

Legitimacy and recognition are very important for the US, and because the US dominates the international stage that makes it important for everyone else.  Consequently the competition between the two Koreas for diplomatic recognition is the key way in which they joust for legitimacy.

The Case of China: PRC vs ROC

The prime example in diplomatic competition has been between China (the People’s Republic of China) and Taiwan (The Republic of China on Taiwan). Both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (or Taiwan) claim sovereignty over the whole of China. Countries can have diplomatic relations with one or the other but not both. It is a zero sum game, and with the change in US policy in the 1970s Taiwan started to lose diplomatic partners to China.

Since Taiwan was an important economy relative to China, especially in the early days countries were reluctant to sever ties.  The pragmatic solution was that the embassies of the ‘Republic of China’ became the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, or a variant of the phrase. The American embassy in Taiwan became the American Institute in Taiwan.  The names changed, the functions remained, and both Beijing and Taipei continued a global hunt for diplomatic scalps.  

As the balance of power shifted in favour of China so did countries transfer recognition, and for years no important country has remained with Taiwan. Those that did were small and impoverished and welcomed funds, either for aid and development projects or personal use. Some shifted recognition with improved offers, flip flopping between Taipei and Beijing.  The situation became farcical in 2008 when two emissaries sent from Taipei with $30million to bribe the Papua New Guinea (PNG) government absconded with the money and the PNG shifted recognition to Beijing.  This happened in the final days of the Independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) under Chen Shui-bian (who was later himself jailed in Taiwan for corruption).

This was succeeded by a Kuomintang (KMT) administration under Ma Ying-jeou.The KMT had been the ruling party in China until it lost out to the Communists in the Chinese Civil War and fled to Taiwan in 1949 and so retained a broader China outlook. Relations with the Mainland greatly improved under Ma, and one aspect was a de-facto ‘diplomatic truce’ during which the competition for recognition was put into suspension –‘no country has switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing (or vice versa) since 2008 – all such efforts have been rebuffed’.  

Now the DPP is back in power under Tsai Ing-wen, and it seems that the truce may be over.  The truce was a remarkable example of how Beijing was willing to subordinate to deeper political purposes. The government in Beijing – any government in Beijing – attaches huge importance to preserving the de jure integrity of China but is willing to make pragmatic compromises. Kim Dae-jung displayed similar wisdom on this issue during his term in office, as we shall see.

Inter-Korean Competition for Recognition

The two Koreas coexisted as separate states resulting from the US division of the Korean peninsula in 1945. They had a ‘unification war’ in 1950-3, but that ended in stalemate, represented by the Armistice Agreement and from then on they existed as separate entities. Both Koreas joined the United Nations in 1991, and other countries could, and did, have diplomatic relations with both.

For the Koreas the competition for recognition had an aspect not prominent in the Chinese case – it was a way of achieving autonomy from their patrons. This had to be done carefully, and for the first decade or so there were no surprises, as Table 7 indicates.

Table 7: Diplomatic relations of the two Koreas, 1948-1960

North Korea South Korea
1948 Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Mongolia, Poland, Romania, USSR USA, China (ROC)
1949 Albania, China (PRC), Germany (East) France, Philippines, UK
1950 Vietnam (North)
1956 Italy, Vietnam (South)
1957 Germany (West), Turkey
1958 Algeria, Guinea Thailand, Sweden
1959 Brazil, Denmark, Norway
1960 Cuba, Mali Malaysia

Each established initially relationships within their respective blocs. Thus North Korea had relations with the USSR from the onset and with the People’s Republic of China after its establishment in 1949. South Korea had relations with the US and with the Republic of China, and this latter relationship continued after the ROC fled to Taiwan in 1949. The North had East Germany and North Vietnam; the South had West Germany and South Vietnam.  Beyond the Sino-Soviet bloc the North established relations with countries such as Algeria which had wrested their independence from colonialism or those, such as Cuba which had had a revolution.  By 1960 each Korea had 15 diplomatic relations, none of them shared.

The competition between the two Koreas for symbols of legitimacy provided an impetus for the drive for diplomatic recognition. No doubt economic considerations also played a part despite the nonsense written about North Korea’s supposed desire for autarky. But beyond that it was a matter of increasing autonomy from patrons and carving out an independent place in the world, like children leaving home. However there were considerable differences in the geopolitical situation in which they found themselves. North Korea had not one patron but two (Soviet Union and China) after the establishment of the PRC in 1949, and they could be played off one against the other, especially as the Sino-Soviet relationship soured. Operating from an inferior position vis-à-vis the US, the Soviet Union and China, which was competing with Taiwan on this issue, were both keen to extend relationships beyond the Socialist bloc and the anti-imperialist world to countries in the capitalist world, which would obey the niceties of international law such as non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. It seems likely that there was little constraint from the patrons for North Korea to do the same. North Korea’s problems lay on the other side of the fence, namely the reluctance of countries to establish relations for fear of American disapproval.

South Korea was in quite a different situation- one patron only and that the global hegemon. No country in the capitalist world, which was a much bigger pool than the combined Socialist bloc and the ‘anti-imperialist’ countries however defined, would earn American disapproval from establishing relations with South Korea. But that did not mean that the US was itself keen on the idea. It was only after Park Chung-hee came into power in 1961 that there was substantial growth, and that growth was explosive. In the three years prior to Park’s coup (1958-60) South Korea had established diplomatic relations with just six countries. In the three years following his coup that number rose to 50 (Table 8).

That was part of the paradox of Park Chung-hee. Despite having served in the Japanese Imperial Army in Manchukuo (he wrote his letter of application, pledging loyalty to Japan in his own blood), and having served the American empire by, amongst other things sending over 300,000 Korean troops to assist the US in Vietnam he was no mere poodle. He stood up against the Americans in the field of economic development – and is consequently seen with some justification as the architect of South Korea’s industrialisation. Here we see his attempt to carve out a Korean space, autonomous of the US, on the world diplomatic stage.

Table 8: the diplomatic competition between the two Korea, 1948-1982

North Korea South Korea North Korea South Korea
Year no cum no cum Year no cum no cum
1948 7 7 2 2 1968 2 28 3 80
1949 3 10 3 5 1969 5 33 1 81
1950 1 11 0 5 1970 2 35 2 83
1956 0 11 2 7 1971 3 38 2 85
1957 0 11 2 9 1972 9 47 1 86
1958 2 13 1 10 1973 16 63 5 91
1959 0 13 4 14 1974 15 78 5 96
1960 2 15 1 15 1975 13 91 3 99
1961 0 15 10 25 1976 3 94 3 102
1962 0 15 30 55 1977 1 95 6 108
1963 2 17 10 65 1978 2 97 4 112
1964 5 22 3 68 1979 4 101 3 115
1965 1 23 7 75 1980 3 104 4 119
1966 1 24 1 76 1981 3 107 2 121
1967 2 26 1 77 1982 3 110 0 121

Note: no = number of relationships established in year; cum = cumulative relationships to date

Park Chung-hee did not venture into the Socialist bloc, or the anti-imperialist and non-aligned area – the closest he came to that forbidden zone was India in 1973 – but there were limits to autonomy and there were plenty of fish in the American ocean.

For Kim Il Sung things were different; because the Sino/Soviet sea was so small he had to go fishing in the American ocean. The Soviets and Chinese were already doing that so constraints from that side might have been limited. The bigger problem was the reluctance of governments to annoy the Americans by entering into a relationship with a designated ‘enemy of the US’. The Soviet Union and China faced that same problem but their size and economic potential as a market were advantages that North Korea could never have. In the three years 1970-2 North Korea established 14 relationships. In the next three years that number rose to 44 (Table 8). Some of the acquisitions were key, if relatively minor, US-aligned Western European countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. Portugal was also added in the period, but that was in 1975, the year following the ‘Carnation Revolution’, which led to Portugal’s withdrawal from its colonies (except Macau) so it may have been an expression of anti-imperialist solidarity.

The timing of this diplomatic surge was significant. It followed the Sino-US rapprochement which led to China taking over many of Taiwan’s diplomatic relationships, and North Korea may well have been able to ride in the slipstream.

North’s Diplomatic Offensive Boosted by Sunshine Policy

There was a second North Korean ‘diplomatic offensive’, by Kim Jong Il in 2000. This started off with establishment of diplomatic relations with Italy on 4 January of that year. This time the dynamics were very different. The DPRK had long been pressing on doors, but now many that had been shut began to open and the reason was South Korean advocacy. As part of his ‘Sunshine Policy’ Kim Dae-jung encouraged governments with whom South Korea had relations to extend recognition to the North. The Americans, especially after the transfer of the administration to George W. Bush, may not have been happy with this, any more than they approved of the Sunshine Policy itself, but it would have been very difficult for US ambassadors to attempt to override suggestions from the ROK embassy.

So, for example, New Zealand established diplomatic relations with North Korea on 26 March 2001, and South Korean diplomats with whom I discussed this were quite confident that it was their doing. And herein lay the problem for North Korea. New Zealand did not establish relations out of a commitment to the concept of the United Nations nor out of a strategy to promote peace in Northeast Asia. That might have been the stuff of media releases. In fact it was reacting to exhortation from Seoul, confident that this was done with permission from Washington. Much the same sort of thing had happened with the recognition of China in 1972, though of course Seoul was not a party in that issue. Decisions on recognition were not taken on matters of principle nor even enlightened self-interest but rather in the light of the relationship with Washington, and in Korean matters Seoul is seen (for the moment at least) to be speaking with the authority of Washington.

What Washington and Seoul could give they can also take away. Currently the New Zealand ambassador to North Korea, based in Seoul, has yet to travel to Pyongyang to present credentials despite invitations.  Meanwhile, the new DPRK ambassador to New Zealand (and Australia) who is based in Jakarta has yet, after at least 9 months, to receive agrément, the official acceptance of an incoming ambassador. In other words, it would appear that New Zealand is holding diplomatic relations with North Korea in abeyance. Whether New Zealand will go further and formally downgrade, or sever, the relationship will presumably depend on ‘guidance’ from Seoul or Washington.

The competition between the two Koreas for diplomatic recognition has not taken place on a level playing field but within a geopolitical framework highly disadvantageous to the North. Nevertheless, on paper there is not a huge difference between their international diplomatic positions. A list of North Korea’s diplomatic relations up to May 2003 is given here. By late 2016 it appears that North Korea had established diplomatic relations with 166 countries. By comparison, according to Wikipedia, South Korea ‘maintains diplomatic relations with 190 countries’.  

‘Diplomatic relations’ in itself may not mean much though. The relationship may exist on paper, but there may be no real diplomatic interaction as in the New Zealand case. The relationship may exist at various levels, from trade office or consulate up to full embassy.  In September 2016 there were reports that North Korea was upgrading its diplomatic office in Belarus to embassy level, though there were other reports from South Korean media denying this. The ambassador may be resident in the country and so may be considered full time. Other ambassadors cover a number of countries, some at considerable distance from each other and if funds are scarce, as is the case with North Korea, the actual amount of time spent outside the country of residence may be quite limited.

There can be no definitive assessment of this diplomatic competition. There are no clear benchmarks, such as numbers of satellites launched or Olympic medals won. However, the competition for diplomatic laurels has been transformed by a very disturbing development as Seoul and Washington have moved to a deliberate policy of de-legitimizing the DPRK.

From Competition to De-legitimization

Firstly, South Korea has started a campaign to have North Korea ejected from the United Nations. This surfaced in February 2016 when South Korea’s ambassador to the UN, Oh Joon, referring to the January nuclear test and the galling successful satellite a couple of days earlier, claimed that they called ‘into question its qualification as a member of the United Nations’.  This was seen by the Hankyoreh as ‘torching all bridges between South and North’ and abandoning the constitutional obligation to seek peaceful reunification.  The campaign was ratcheted up further in September when Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se argued in a speech to the UN General Assembly that ‘it is high time to seriously reconsider whether North Korea is qualified as a peace-loving UN member’. Back in Seoul the right-wing Chosun Ilbo enthusiastically joined in, exclaiming ‘N.Korea Should Be Kicked Out of the UN’.

The argument was specious – if all countries accused of violating the UN Charter were removed the UN would be seriously denuded and the prime candidate for expulsion would be the United States. The UN is not a gathering of the virtuous waiting for ascension to heaven but a forum in which the states of the world might conceivably reconcile differences peacefully.  No country has ever been expelled from the UN, though South Africa was for a time suspended, and it is clear that China and Russia, for a start, would block any such moves. That would be for reasons that extend beyond North Korea. If a junior ally of the US could get a country kicked out of the UN where might it all end?  The South Korean moves were rhetorical with no expectation of success, but the symbolism was important and foreboding.

The UN exercise has been complemented by a US and South Korean campaign to pressure countries to sever or curtail diplomatic relations with North Korea. There are indications that some in the US bureaucracy are uneasy with this violation of international protocol. The State Department spokesperson was apparently discomforted by reports that Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel had claimed that the US had pressured governments ‘to downgrade or sever diplomatic and economic ties’. It is one thing to get up to mischief behind closed doors but another to admit it in public.

The campaign seems to have had some modest success. Botswana had already cut ties in 2014 before the current campaign, but recently there have been reports that Uzbekistan, Ukraine, and Uganda have taken various measures.  In all, according to the Chosun Ilbo on 4 October, quoting Voice of America (VOA), 12 Countries Downgraded Ties with N.Korea. How true these reports are remain uncertain, but what is clear is that in some countries at least there must be a struggle between conscience and expediency. For instance Vietnam is one of the countries on the VOA list. North Korea was an ally and quite an important one in Vietnam’s struggle for liberation from the French then the Americans. South Korea under Park Chung-hee sent, as we have seen, a massive number of troops to support the Americans. More than that, the South Korean involvement in Vietnam was notorious for atrocities which still are remembered with pain today. Africa is another area where North Korea contributed to the anti-colonial struggle.

Korean Scramble for Africa

Both South Korea’s Park Geun-hye and North Korea’s Kim Yong Nam made tours of Africa in May 2016, visiting different countries. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong made a two-week trip in August, visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia, Angola and South Africa.  A major purpose of Park’s visit was to persuade governments to curtail ties with North Korea, and she claimed a major success in Uganda, where it was reported that she had persuaded President Museveni to Stop Military Cooperation with N.Korea’.  Things weren’t quite so clear-cut. The Hankyoreh, in what it called ‘Pres. Park’s folly in Uganda’ recounted with some glee a Kerfuffle in Uganda over announcements during Pres. Park’s trip.  Museveni had said one thing in public with Park, but deputy government spokesman Shaban Bantariza, unaware of this, reacted to press questions with astonishment- “That is not true. It is propaganda….. That is international politics at play.” In the event it appears that Uganda did perhaps succumb but not without internal rumblings.

Somewhat the same convulsions were seen in Namibia. In July the Korea Times reported that Namibia cuts ties with North Korean firms over UN sanctions.  The report did note that Namibia said its “warm diplomatic relations” with North Korea will remain. ‘UN sanctions’ means of course the United States and indicates how difficult it is to assess what is being achieved by South Korea on its own, with its considerable economic clout, versus South Korea as a surrogate for the US.  As with Uganda it was not a clear-cut victory, and it appears that Namibia is not yielding without resistance to American pressure. The same story is being played out across the continent as Two Koreas battle for hearts and minds in Africa, as countries with old friendships with North Korea dating back to independence struggles cope with pressure directly from South Korea and substantially from the US. Public declarations are often contradicted by clandestine non-compliance.

What does the Escalation to De-legitimization Presage?

This essay has examined inter-Korean competition for legitimacy across three fields – sport, space and diplomatic relations. In the last one we have seen an escalation from rivalry to something potentially more dangerous.  Is Seoul gearing up for war? It would be foolish to discount the possibility merely because the consequences would be so calamitous for both Koreas and the wider region. Certainly the constant talk of unification while at the same time spurning any opportunity to improve the relationship with Pyongyang has an inescapable logic- if unification is inevitable and is not to be achieved through cooperation with the North, then it must be by force.

However, the campaign to have North Korea ejected from the UN will not succeed, and even the attempt to pressure countries to curtail their diplomatic and economic ties with the North has had limited success. Countries may acquiesce in public but not fully comply in private, much in the same way and for the same reasons that China approaches sanctions on North Korea.

South Korea cannot invade the North on its own. It needs US permission and involvement, and that is unlikely to be forthcoming unless Washington decides that now is the time for war with China, although it is just possible that a determined Park Geun-hye might be able to manoeuvre a triumphant but confused and uninformed Donald Trump into it.

Back in the early 1970s, during the time of ping-pong diplomacy with the US, the Chinese came up with the slogan ‘Friendship First, Competition Second’.  Unfortunately South Korea under Lee Myung-bak and now Park Geun-hye has moved in the other direction, going from competition within acceptable parameters to a contest without constraints.

The crisis over the Choi Sun-sil affair has injected new urgency into the issue. A beleaguered Park Geun-hye might be tempted to escalate tension with North Korea as a diversion if she attempts to hold onto office. If she resigns or is impeached, a Saenuri Party candidate may similarly resort to the ‘North Wind’ tactic, although this way of garnering votes is less successful now than in the past. Alternatively, and hopefully, Park’s deep unpopularity, manifested by the one million demonstrators on 12 November and the manner of her political demise might be sufficient to propel into the presidency a progressive who would seek to improve relations with North Korea, promoting friendship instead of confrontation. That, however, would take place within the constraints, and uncertainties, of a Trump administration.

Competition for legitimacy between the two Koreas will continue for the foreseeable future, but the mode of that competition is unclear in the present political turmoil.


By Tim Beal


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