WASHINGTON — Over an official lunch in late February, a top South Korean official confidently told the U.S. ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, that North Korea would fall “two to three years” after the death of Kim Jong Il, the country’s ailing leader, Stephens later cabled Washington. A new, younger generation of Chinese leaders “would be comfortable with a reunited Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a benign alliance,” the diplomat predicted.
But if Seoul was destined to control the entire Korean Peninsula, China — the powerful ally that keeps the North alive with food and fuel — would have to be placated. So South Korea was already planning to assure Chinese companies they would have ample commercial opportunities in the mineral-rich northern part of the peninsula.
This trove of cables ends in February, just before North Korea began a series of military actions, the latest the shelling of a South Korean island that killed four people, that has thrown some of Asia’s most prosperous countries into crisis.
None of that was predicted in the dozens of State Department cables about North Korea obtained by the organization WikiLeaks, and in fact even China, the North’s closest ally, has often been startlingly wrong, the cables show. But the documents help explain why some South Korean and U.S. officials suspect the military outbursts may be the last snarls of a dying dictatorship.
The cables make it clear that the South Koreans believe internal tensions in the North have reached a boiling point. In January of this year, South Korea’s foreign minister reported to a visiting U.S. official that the South Koreans saw an “increasingly chaotic” situation in the North.
They also show that talk of the North’s collapse may be rooted more in hope than in any real strategy; similar predictions were made in 1994 when the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, suddenly died, leaving his son to run the most isolated country in Asia. And a Chinese expert warned, according to an U.S. diplomat, that Washington was deceiving itself once again if it believed “North Korea would implode after Kim Jong Il’s death.”
And they show how even China misjudged the North’s determination to develop its nuclear program. For example, when the Obama administration started raising alarms about North Korea’s uranium enrichment efforts, two senior Chinese Foreign Ministry officials reported that China’s experts believed “the enrichment was only in its initial phases.”