The odd couple: North Korea and Indonesia

“Misery,” wrote William Shakespeare, “acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” Most pundits today would say it’s not misery but politics ― especially geopolitics ― that makes strange bedfellows. Almost invariably they would cite the strange case of North Korea and Indonesia.

There is indeed a huge difference between North Korea and Indonesia. One is l’enfant terrible of international affairs. The other is a global activist for democracy, an emerging economic power that would reform the world financial architecture. But there is undeniably a friendship between the two countries.

Thus the president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Council of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Yong-nam, paid an official visit to Jakarta recently. He came representing not only the living but also the dead: the Eternal President of North Korea is still officially its founder, Kim Il-sung, a great and close friend of Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno. Popular legend has it that he is not dead. He merely hiked off to the hills to get some sleep.

And the Eternal Chairman of the country’s National Defense Commission, the body that controls the military, and therefore the most powerful, is still officially Kim Jong-il.

One title matters

The living ruler has many titles but needs only one, that of First Chairman of the National Defense Commission, to secure his role as the lone decision-maker in a highly centralized system. Remove that title from Kim Jong-un and he is a boy with baby fat who played basketball in school and idolizes Michael Jordan. But given that title, he has power of life and death over every individual in North Korea.

Though he is Supreme Leader, he neither pays nor receives state visits. That’s the function of Kim Yong-nam, who came to Indonesia to scout out how this country attracts foreign investors.

And when President Yudhoyono honored North Korea’s number two with a state dinner, he dug into Indonesia’s collective memory and found a flower that would fit the sentiments of the occasion. He recounted the oft-repeated story of President Kim Il-sung’s visit to Indonesia in 1965: President Sukarno was showing the North Korean leader around the Bogor Gardens when the latter was smitten by an orchid from Makassar.

President Sukarno promptly christened the flower Kimilsungia and appointed it as the symbol of the eternal friendship between the two countries.

It was during that visit of Kim Il-sung that his son Kim Jong-il, who would succeed his father as strongman, and Megawati Sukarnoputri, the future president, first met and became friends. President Megawati visited North Korea during her term early in the past decade but if much was accomplished on that occasion, apart from an outpouring of nostalgia, it was not well publicized.

Not everyone was amused by the overflow of good feelings during the Kim Yong-nam visit: a South Korean journalist ― not a diplomat nor an official, but a journalist who should be a disinterested professional ― used strong language to impress on a Jakarta foreign ministry official his outrage that Indonesia should invite a North Korean leader at all.

A reader of my Jakarta Globe column on foreign policy objected to Indonesia helping North Korea get some “international status” by hosting the state visit, warning that “we might get into deeper trouble by entertaining a nation that is presently into testing missiles and flexing muscles for possible successful launching of nuclear missiles.”

Generous aid

Indonesian human rights activists, already leery of the Kim Yong-nam visit, raised their hackles when they learned that President Yudhoyono had agreed to send $2 million worth of aid to North Korea. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa quickly announced that Indonesia would make sure the aid would reach those who needed it.

North Korea never makes it easy to be its friend: its rhetoric always has a truckload of threats. And its behavior is often downright aggressive. South Korea has not forgiven the North for the sinking of one of its warships in March 2010. When a chorus of other nations denounced this act of aggression, North Korea had the cheek to threaten to “respond to countermeasure with a total war of justice.”

Last April, North Korea launched a satellite that sputtered, in the process earning the condemnation of nations, this time including Indonesia. That’s because they saw it as a disguised attempt to test a missile that can hit Hawaii, Alaska and the US West Coast. Even China rebuked the extravaganza. In fact, North Korea’s relations with China soured in recent weeks, after North Korean authorities detained and maltreated 28 Chinese fishermen.

North Korea’s human rights record is an epic of brutality. The savagery of its labor camps rivals that of the gulags of the erstwhile Soviet Union and the Nazi concentration camps of World War II.  The testimonies of 278 defectors who survived the North Korean labor camps are chronicles of starvation, torture, betrayal of prisoner by prisoner, and being worked to death.
Some 200,000 individuals now languish in those camps. Most of them have committed no crime; many are just relatives of individuals who have displeased the regime.

Chronic famine stalks the North Korean countryside, though nobody can tell the extent of it today. The United States and South Korea say reports of food shortages are overblown. The UN World Food Program says otherwise.  The countryside is also facing a drought, which could worsen the famine. Obviously the kindest and wisest thing Indonesia can do is to send its $2 million donation through the World Food Program.

As late as a decade ago, many Indonesian diplomats believed Indonesia could influence North Korea to behave more like a responsible member of the world community. Not any more.

No reformer

It is clear that no act of kindness, no lucrative trade and investment relationship, and no appeal to sentiment can midwife the birth of a gentler, more tractable North Korean regime. Kim Jong-un is no reformer: his style is different from that of his father ― he has made two speeches in a few months, while his father never delivered a speech during his rule ― but the substance is the same stuff of tyranny.

It is also clear that Indonesia carries this burdensome friendship as a matter of principle. The principle is that there is no point in isolating any nation no matter how damnable are its rulers in the eyes of the world. Dialogue is always useful.

It was the same principle at work when Indonesia refused to follow the example of Western governments and Japan by kicking out all Syrian envoys after the massacre in Houla. “Sooner or later we have to talk with the Syrians,” says Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. “How can we talk with them if we have kicked them out?”

I see another reason Indonesia has kept its friendship with North Korea. This lies at the very core of its foreign policy: the principle of non-alignment. Adam Malik, when he was foreign minister, once said that Indonesia was “born non-aligned” and therefore would never leave the Non-aligned Movement (NAM).

Today if by some stroke of fate the NAM would suddenly vanish, Indonesia would still be non-aligned. It would never align itself with any bloc of nations against any nation, whether that nation be China or North Korea.

Told that some Western countries were critical of Indonesia for hosting the Kim Yong-nam visit, an Indonesian diplomat reacted with glee. “Good!” he said. “That proves Indonesia is still non-aligned.”

But you hardly hear anybody use the term “non-aligned” in Indonesia these days. It is, after all, a clumsy term with a hint of the negative. It provokes the question, “non-aligned against whom?”

Dynamic equilibrium

I think non-alignment now lives by another name. Foreign Minister Marty has restated it elegantly and in a positive way as “dynamic equilibrium.” The difference is that the new term emphasizes working in concert. It refers to a state of affairs that is inclusive rather than exclusive, where there is no dominant power, where diplomacy and dialogue are the preferred ways of settling disputes.

In a regional architecture being built on the principle of dynamic equilibrium, there’s always a place for North Korea if and when it wants to engage in dialogue. That’s why Indonesia at the turn of the century worked for North Korea’s inclusion in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). And that’s why at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting a year ago in Bali, Indonesia arranged for an “informal-informal” dialogue between North Korean officials and their South Korean counterparts.

I’m sure Indonesia will never condone North Korean aggression nor will it approve its human rights violations. But it will keep on talking with North Korea, encouraging it to do what is right ― as Indonesia did in the case of Myanmar.
That kind of friendship makes for an odd couple. But in geopolitics, it’s always better to be talking with a strange bedfellow than to allow the death of dialogue.

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By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

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