The last year or so was the time when the North Korean diplomacy produced outbursts of activity in the areas it has seldom dealt with recently, but remained remarkably passive in dealing with its usual targets – South Korea, China and U.S. Atypically, North Korea is doing little to attract foreign aid, and tends to ignore approaches from the foreign powers, remaining is isolation.
To start with, it is clear the North Korean government has no intention of negotiating with Seoul. This is what the North Koreans have repeated recently a number of times. Admittedly, Pyongyang is not known for its unwavering adherence to official statements, but the frequent outbursts of personal abuse toward President Park Geun-hye can serve as a better indication of North Korea’s true intent: The North Korean media has never attacked those South Korean politicians with whom the North Korean leaders want to negotiate.
It will be an oversimplification to put all blame on the North Korean shoulders, of course. The Seoul government also shows little flexibility, stubbornly refusing to lift the May 24 Measures which make almost impossible any interaction with the North.
For the outside world, however, the question of responsibility is rather irrelevant. It is far more important that in the next year or two there are few chances for any but minor improvement in relations between the two Korean states. The new Cold War on the Korean Peninsula is likely to continue until, at least, the next elections in South Korea, scheduled to take place in December 2017.
It seems that the North Korean leaders hope that the next elections will bring a “progressive” (that is, left-leaning) candidate to the Blue House. Given the sorry state of the South Korean opposition, which loses one by-election after another, this is far from certain – and, of course, one cannot be sure whether the policy of the left-leaning administration will be that different.
Historically, periods of frosty relations with the South were marked by North Korea’s attempts to improve relations with some other potential donors. However, this time this trend is less pronounced then before. North Korea shows little interest in dealing with the U.S. – admittedly, this attitude is mutual: Washington ignores Pyongyang as well.
The relations with China are also at the worst shape since 1992
The relations with China are also at the worst shape since 1992, the year China recognized the South Korean government and established the full diplomatic relations with Seoul. The crisis to a very large extent has been provoked by the attitude of Xi Jinping’s administration, which is getting tired of North Korea’s unwillingness to take into account the interests of China, its major sponsor. However, the problems in relations with China have been aggravated by North Korea’s own confrontational actions and thinly veiled attacks against China.
The relations with Russia appear more promising at the first glance, but one might suspect that these relations are based on highly unrealistic expectations from both sides. In spite of rhetoric, trade between two countries remains negligible, while the prospects of joint projects are rather murky. It seems that the Russian side believes in reciprocity-based cooperation while the North Korean side expects Moscow to soon behave like the Soviet Union of the 1970s, showering North Korea with aid, cheap loans and subsidized trade.
It is also remarkable that North Korean diplomats have begun to show unusual interest in Europe and Southeast Asia. However, these approaches are also seemingly based on the rather unrealistic assumptions. The European companies have little reason to invest in North Korea, whose business reputation is less than ideal, and they are even less ready to provide North Korea with charity.
ALONE AGAIN, NATURALLY
Thus, North Korea seems more isolated than ever in the last one or two decades, but this isolation is largely of Pyongyang’s own making and it is seemingly not perceived as a major pressing problem by the North Korean decision-makers.
One can suspect that, for the time being, Kim Jong Un and his advisors do not feel a pressing need to negotiate with the outside world. The major reasons pushing them toward making a deal was the need to secure the foreign assistance, both direct and indirect. Indeed, as Nicholas Eberstadt once observed, the entire policy of North Korea can be described as a chain of aid-maximizing stratagems. This approach was vital throughout the entire history of North Korea, whose economy, after a short burst in the late 1950s and early 1960s, has never been known for its efficiency. It became even more important in the 1990s, when the economy was collapsing, and the access to foreign aid was vital for both the physical survival of the populace and political survival of the regime.
… the first three years of Kim Jong Un’s rule were a time of steady economic recovery and growth
However, the first three years of Kim Jong Un’s rule were a time of steady economic recovery and growth. Actually, the recovery began under the watch of his father but recently it accelerated – to some extent, as a result of modest reforms, but also because of the government’s new willingness to tacitly tolerate the growing market economy. North Korea remains a poor country, by far the poorest in East Asia, but judged by its own standards of the last three decades it is doing reasonably well. Foreign observers tend to estimate that the annual growth rate in North Korea is now somewhere between 3 and 5 percent.
One can doubt whether the current growth can be sustained in the long run without infusion of foreign aid and/or investment, but for the time being things appear to be rather good. Thus, there is little wonder that the North Korean officials and diplomats feel little urge to negotiate new deals right now.
If so, what should the outside world do? Well, as usual is the case with North Korea, little can be done apart from waiting. Sooner or later, things will change, and North Koreans, pressed by the need to secure aid and investment, will take a more active stance. It will be time when active engagement becomes possible again, and when some concessions (admittedly, rather minor) can be wrestled from Pyongyang in the course of negotiations. The doors should remain open, but for the time being it appears that North Koreans have no particular desire to enter these doors.
Picture: Rodong Sinmun
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