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North Korea Looking Abroad


By Matthew Nitkoski

Nearly six years ago, the last attempt at multilateral engagement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea ended with the secretive Kim regime vowing to continue its uranium enrichment program. In the intervening years, neither allies nor enemies have been able to convince Pyongyang to halt its nuclear efforts and the fragile North Korean economy has continued to face debilitating sanctions. Unwilling to reverse course on its military program, the isolated Kim regime has begun reconsidering its foreign policy position and has made new attempts to increase trade and investment with its Asian neighbors.

North Korea’s desire to find new trading partners is partially spurred by its deteriorating relationship with China. Xi Jinping has yet to meet with Kim Jong-un, but has already had several high-profile meetings with South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Already strained diplomatic relations between Pyongyang and Beijing have been further weakened by a series of high-profile murders by North Koreans sneaking across China’s border. These grisly events have given Chinese citizens pause when considering their relationship with Kim’s regime. Recent internet commentary reflects the country’s worsening opinion and the ongoing debate in Chinese society over support for North Korea.

For its part, the Chinese Communist Party is weary of supporting a regime that gladly receives food and economic assistance, but is unwilling to accept diplomatic advice. With Chinese imports accounting for around 60% of the nation’s food and energy, Kim Jong-un is also eager to reduce his dependence on Beijing. With Beijing pursuing improved relations with Seoul over issues as diverse as trade policy and cybersecurity, Pyongyang has sent out a number of diplomatic missions to garner economic support as it reforms itself and seeks self-sufficiency.

The Kim regime has primarily focused on improving trade relations with Russia, and both Moscow and Pyongyang have taken positive steps towards enhancing their economic ties. Although Russia is suffering its own economic woes due to sanctions and a collapsing currency, Moscow has made a serious effort to signal its intentions. In 2014, Russia finalized the cancelation of $10 billion of North Korea’s $11 billion debt that had accrued during the Soviet Era. The Kremlin expects that this gesture of goodwill will facilitate the construction of a gas pipeline covering the Korean peninsula, but also acknowledges that North Korea could contain profitable investments opportunities.

Moscow is continuing its efforts to improve ties with Pyongyang and, last week, the Russian Chamber of Commerce created the Council for Cooperation with North Korea. Established with the ambitious goal of doubling trade figures to $2 billion by 2020, the Council indicates that both Moscow and Pyongyang are serious about developing cohesive economic ties. Kim Jong-un has responded positively to these advancement and is rumored to be considering a trip to Russia to attend ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War II. This high level diplomatic visit would serve as a capstone to a period of increasingly friendly relations between the two countries.

North Korea has also recently made attempts to engage various Southeast Asian countries in an attempt to diversify its economic relations. In August of 2014, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong visited Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, and Singapore and, while his official itinerary and talking points remain secret, many view this as an overt attempt to strengthen economic ties. Last month, Pyongyang reiterated its interest in the fast-growing region by sending Vice Foreign Minister Ri Kil-song to seven Southeast Asian countries. These renewed attempts at economic cooperation coupled with plan to develop 13 special economic zones signal North Korea’s willingness to experiment with reform and become more self-reliant in the face of souring relations with China.

The recent round of missile tests are a clear signal that Kim Jong-un will maintain his hawkish military stance. With renewed six-party talks predicated on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament, Pyongyang is seeking ways to circumvent the long-standing economic sanctions by strengthening economic ties with its Asian neighbors. Kim Jong-un is wary of any foreign interference in domestic affairs, and his moves to diversify the North Korean economy are clear attempts to reduce his country’s reliance on Beijing. The recent statement by Daniel Russel, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, could act as encouragement for Kim Jong-un as he balances reform with firm party control.

Last week, Assistant Secretary Russel advised that, “A change in North Korea does not need to be a regime change as the example of Burma shows.” Kim Jong-un clearly understands the unique challenges he will face as the leader of North Korea, and these recent attempts at engaging the international community signal his intent to develop the state economy. While it seems unlikely that the regime will suddenly revise its status quo, these political overtures are clear indications of North Korea’s attempt to stake out its own claims for economic opportunity and solidify its political independence.

Matthew Nitkoski is a MA candidate in International Affairs at the Elliot School for International Affairs at George Washington University and an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Adam Barker’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.