South Korean soldiers face a North Korean soldier standing at the border village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea on Thursday. North Korea's neighbors are reassessing their policies following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
South Korean soldiers face a North Korean soldier standing at the border village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea on Thursday. North Korea's neighbors are reassessing their policies following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Wally Santana/AP
The boundary between North Korea and South Korea has been called the world's most dangerous border. But on Thursday, the most dangerous thing about it appeared to be the biting cold and bone-chilling wind, with one Korean soldier jokingly describing the temperature as "hell."
At the Joint Security Area where the actual demarcation line is, half a dozen South Korean soldiers stood at the alert, facing off against one solitary North Korean soldier in khaki. The only unusual sign was the North Korean flag flying at half-staff.
Despite the political shock of Kim Jong Il's sudden death, the military situation in the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, is unchanged, according to the spokesman for U.S. forces in Korea, Col. Jonathan Withington.
"All is calm," he says. "We're operating under normal armistice conditions. We've seen no unusual movements or activities."
Now that the Kim Jong Il era has come to an end, North Korea's neighbors are recalibrating their policies and weighing new security concerns.
On Thursday, South Korea's conservative President Lee Myung-bak urged stability in the North. He underlined that South Korea does not feel animosity toward the North and said there is room for flexibility in ties.
These words come at a time when ties between the two Koreas have deteriorated to the worst point in years. A total of 50 South Koreans, mainly soldiers, were killed in the past year during two military provocations blamed on North Korea, including the shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong.
Now Kim Jong Il's death appears to open the way for a softening of the South's stance, the emergence of a new policy toward the North.
"I think South Korea's policy is being reconstituted as we speak, and so is the world in terms of trying to deal with this very unusual state," says Jasper Kim, the author of Crisis and Change: South Korea in a Post-1997 New Era and a visiting scholar at Harvard. He describes Seoul's policy toward Pyongyang as being "in flux" and in a state of "slight confusion."
"The South Korean president is trying to get closer to North Korea, but not exactly close," he says. "This is a little bit in stark contrast to what his policy was in the beginning of his administration: that North Korea is a state that is not a friend to South Korea."
China Shows Support
While South Korea has been re-examining its ties, China has not been wasting time. Beijing has been busy honoring the late North Korean leader, despite a sometimes fractious relationship during his lifetime.
All of China's top nine leaders — from President Hu Jintao on down — have made the pilgrimage to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing. China was also the first country to offer condolences following Kim's death.
North Korean soldiers watch the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone on Thursday. North Korea has tightened security and put troops on alert since the announcement of Kim's death.
North Korean soldiers watch the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone on Thursday. North Korea has tightened security and put troops on alert since the announcement of Kim's death. Wally Santana/AP
Hahm Chaibong, the president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, says he believes China's moves are carefully calculated.
"During Kim Jong Il's time, we know that there was really no love lost between the Chinese and North Koreans," Hahm says. "Back when Kim Jong Il himself was going through a political transition, when he was succeeding his father, the Chinese didn't help him. It didn't do much to alleviate the famine that started in 1995. And there was a very long period — more than a decade — when nobody of any significance visited the other side."
That's in stark contrast to the recent rapprochement. Kim Jong Il himself had visited China three times in the past 18 months, as have a parade of North Korean officials.
Last October, Beijing sent Zhou Yongkang, the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of security to attend Kim Jong Un's coming-out parade, where he played a prominent role standing on the podium beside Kim Jong Il and his successor. With that very public support of the succession, China's message was unequivocal.
"The Chinese seem to be making very, very clear that they're not going to make the same mistake they did with Kim Jong Il," says Hahm Chaibong. "They're going to make sure that Kim Jong Un feels grateful toward China for supporting him in a period of very difficult transition. That's one of the reasons why the Chinese are going out of their way to show respect and to assure Kim Jong Un."
Another sore point for the South is that it didn't know about Kim's death until it was announced two days later on North Korean state television. It's unclear whether China was given early notice. For many in South Korea, this represented a failure of South Korean intelligence and highlighted a glaring security weakness on the Korean peninsula.
"It just goes to show if the top brass in North Korea makes a decision to launch some kind of a major attack or something, we just won't know until it actually happens," Hahm says. "There's just going to be no way we are going to be able to take any kind of preventative measure, because we just won't know in time."
Despite the current calm at the DMZ, the geopolitical shakeout is only just beginning. An unknown 20-something is now at the very least nominally in charge of a nuclear-armed state. His father may have been predictable in his unpredictability. But what Kim Jong Un will do — or even what he's thinking — is something nobody can predict.