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New power game unfolds in Korean Peninsula ahead of US election

Pyongyang congress and Xi's Seoul visit linked to fate of Trump

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks at the ruling Workers' Party's Central Committee plenum in Pyongyang on Aug. 19, in this photo released by North Korean Central News Agency.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- A confluence of factors related to the Korean Peninsula may cause significant changes in the region's geopolitical landscape, with new political and diplomatic developments in the works.

North Korea recently decided to hold the congress of its ruling Workers' Party next January for the first time in five years, while China and South Korea agreed on an early visit to South Korea by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

These two events could have massive repercussions on East Asia's configuration of power, which will also be greatly affected by the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 3.

Speaking at a party Central Committee plenum on Aug. 19, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un candidly admitted that the economic development plan adopted at the seventh party congress in May 2016 had failed to achieve many of its goals.

At the next party congress, Kim said, "disruptions and shortcomings" in projects to achieve development goals set at the seventh congress will be "completely assessed."

I covered the Workers' Party's seventh congress, the first such event in 36 years. Appearing in a suit, Kim pledged to expand and upgrade the country's relationships with other nations in a way commensurate with its newly acquired status as a nuclear power.

In the congress, the freshly minted leader expressed his desire to improve his secluded country's ties with South Korea and start talks with the U.S. for a peace deal. I recall a euphoric and self-confident Kim declaring the arrival of a new era for the country.

Kim then set out to conduct a series of nuclear tests and firings of ballistic missiles under a strategy apparently aimed at strengthening his hand in negotiations with key foreign players. After pushing up tensions on the Korean Peninsula to a hair-trigger level, Kim suddenly switched to a foreign policy of dialogue in early 2018. He held a historic summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in June that year. Clearly, things moved faster than he had expected.

But his diplomatic strategy started unraveling when his second meeting with Trump, held in Hanoi in February 2019, ended without any deal. Kim then reverted to focusing on building up the military, saying he had decided to lead the nation through "a severe and lengthy struggle again."

A party congress is usually held only when the leader can trumpet some important achievement to the people at home. Although the ruling party stressed the next congress will be held to "lay out a new plan for the struggle and present strategic and tactical principles to strengthen the party in terms of its organization and ideology," nothing important has been set for the meeting except for its schedule.

The congress will come two months after the U.S. presidential poll. Pyongyang may be wishing for Trump's reelection but will have to reassess Washington's relationships and strategies with China and North Korea if former Vice President Joe Biden wins. Based on these assessments, Kim will decide whether to seek a compromise with Washington or keep pursuing a hard-line stance toward it.

This strategic decision will probably be touted as an "achievement" at the party congress. Since Pyongyang needs to discuss and coordinate its new policy toward the U.S. with Beijing, Kim must have decided that the congress would have to wait for at least two months after the U.S. election.

The Kim regime is also under strong pressure to announce a new economic development plan early next year to prevent the public from becoming disillusioned with the regime. The ambitious five-year economic plan adopted at the 2016 party congress to build a "great socialist country" by 2020 has gone awry due to the triple whammies of stringent economic sanctions against the North over its nuclear and missile programs, damage from the coronavirus pandemic and huge flooding caused by torrential rains.

Even the party leadership has been forced to admit failure. "Planned attainment of the goals for improving the national economy has been seriously delayed and the people's living standard has not been improved remarkably," it said in a document adopted at the Aug. 19 Central Committee meeting.

Suh Hoon, director of South Korea's National Security Office, left, and China's top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, head to a meeting in Busan on Aug. 22. (Yonhap/Kyodo photo)

It is no coincidence that China's top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, a member of the Communist Party Politburo, visited South Korea on Aug. 21 and 22.

China has warmed to the idea of Xi's early visit to South Korea, which Seoul has been pursuing with zeal for some time.

There is little doubt that Beijing is trying to win over South Korea, an ally of the U.S.

In return for promising Xi's early visit to South Korea, pundits say, Yang is likely to demand that Seoul support China over certain issues that have strained the ties between Beijing and Washington, such as the new security law to crack down on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, the dispute over Huawei Technologies and the territorial tussles in the South China Sea. Beijing will likely at the very least urge Seoul to remain neutral.

In other words, China will force South Korea to display allegiance to Beijing by taking advantage of political uncertainty in the U.S. due to the presidential election.

South Korean media have warned that President Moon Jae-in's administration will find itself walking a tightrope as it tries to strike a balance between maintaining its alliance with Washington and currying favor with Beijing.

For the Moon administration, keeping South Korea's relationship with China, its largest trading partner, on an even keel is vital for its political viability. The administration is also hoping that Xi's visit will revive the stalled talks between the U.S. and North Korea and between Seoul and Pyongyang over the Kim regime's nuclear ambitions.

It is obvious that South Korea tried to please China when it decided against signing a U.N. Human Rights Council statement by 27 countries, including Japan, criticizing the national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong at the end of June.

The U.S. initially invited South Korea to join the meeting of defense chiefs that it was planning to hold with Japan in Guam on Aug. 29. But South Korean media have reported that Seoul is considering declining the invitation or taking part only through teleconferencing. This reflects Seoul's reluctance to take any action that could ruffle the feathers of China or North Korea, both of which do not want to deal with joint diplomatic efforts under the U.S.-Japan-South Korea framework.

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