If a string of diplomatic visits is any
indication, North Korea and a number of countries
in Southeast Asia are working to rekindle the
flames of old alliances.
This month, North
Korea Workers' Party secretary Kim Yong-il is
touring Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. In May, Kim
Yong-nam, North Korea's second highest-ranking
official, traveled to Indonesia and Singapore.
Like so much of what North Korea does on the
international stage, this is all a bit ambiguous
and could be all for show.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said while
hosting his North Korean contemporaries, "Our
relations are good and have a long history. The
visit of your Excellency President
Kim this time marks a
new milestone in efforts to enhance our
cooperation and the partnership between the two
countries in the future." On June 1, Yudhoyono
agreed to send US$2 million in aid to famine-hit
North Korea. When talking about entire countries,
$2 million isn't a lot of money, so the donation
was likely a symbolic gesture of support.
Southeast Asia is a logical place to look
for opportunities now that North Korea has become
more economically and diplomatically isolated
following its April rocket launch attempt and
other refusals to play by the international
community's rules. Pyongyang shares many years of
cooperative relations with some of the states in
the region, while cold relations with South Korea
have stalled trade on the peninsula. South Korea
cut off most inter-Korean trade in May 2010 after
the sinking of the Cheonan warship in March
of that year. Seoul accused Pyongyang of being
behind the sinking, though North Korea has denied
"The most important point
to recall is that there have been trade and
exchange ties between North Korea and individual
South East Asian countries for decades, varying
greatly in the level of intensity and frequency of
exchange by country," said Hyung-Gu Lynn,
professor at the Institute of Asian Research in
the University of British Columbia.
schmoozing among national leaders is still to
come, with Pak Ui-chun, North Korea's foreign
minister, set to make an official visit to
Cambodia when Phnom Penh hosts a regional forum of
the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian
Nations (ASEAN) forum. The meeting, with 27
countries attending, begins on July 27. Cambodian
Foreign Minister Hor Namhong made a five-day trip
to North Korea in early June.
local media in each country that has hosted North
Korean representatives, meetings were generally
focused on trade and investment, with specific
attention paid to the task of attracting foreign
investors to the North.
A recent report by
South Korea's Unification Ministry recorded a
total of US$1.7 billion in inter-Korean trade in
2011, down from $1.9 billion in 2010.
of North Korea's trade is with its ally and
benefactor, China; Pyongyang is apparently seeking
to reduce that reliance. According to a May 30
report by the Korea Trade Promotion Corporation,
in 2011, North Korea conducted 89% of its trade
with China. In 2004, that number was 48.5%. South
Korea is still North Korea's second-largest
trading partner, followed by Russia.
Commerce isn't North Korea's only concern.
Myanmar, Laos and Thailand are all transit spots
for North Korean escapees. Pyongyang may wish to
foster good relations with those countries to
smooth repatriation of North Koreans who are taken
into custody after entering without documents.
But what's in this for the Southeast Asian
nations? Cooperating with the repressive Pyongyang
government is sure to draw the ire of the US and
South Korea and reflect poorly on the Southeast
Asian states' commitments to human rights.
There are a few possibilities. As
mentioned earlier, North Korea has been invited to
participate in ASEAN meetings. Member states may
be cultivating Pyongyang as a partner that can
help push their initiatives in the regional bloc.
Indonesia might be interested in building its
global profile by mediating between Pyongyang and
the other participants in the stalled nuclear
"For individual Southeast
Asian countries, motivations vary by country and
by government. South Korea is a more significant
economic player in all the Southeast Asian
countries, so this is really all about symbolic
politics, that is, providing an alternative space
for possible engagement, while minimizing risk,"
said Lynn. Is that enough incentive to
publicly make friends with North Korea? At the
time of Kim's visit to Indonesia, Asia Foundation
Korea branch president Peter Beck told Voice of
America, "North Korea has become a massive
liability - an economic liability and a political
liability - and I seriously doubt that North Korea
has anything that Indonesia really needs.
"Frankly I think they [Indonesia] have
much more to lose than to gain from dealing with
North Korea," said Beck.
Perhaps the most
interesting question here is whether this recent
activity can be taken as indicative of Kim
Jong-eun taking small steps toward opening North
No one is yet sure what
direction the young leader will take his
struggling country, but there are faint glimmers
of the possibility of a small amount of openness.
The common slogan "regeneration through one's own
efforts" appeared nowhere in four speeches by Kim
recently printed in the Rodong Sinmun, the
newspaper of North Korea's Workers' Party.
In that same newspaper, a May 30 editorial
implored officials to "get better acquainted with
reality", perhaps a hint they should move away
from ideology and accept the need to engage with
the outside world, if only a little bit.
If we know anything about North Korea, it
is that its state apparatus is resilient. Measures
to isolate the country have led to the shrewd
seeking of alternatives. Some countries in
Southeast Asia are apparently willing to
cooperate, at least for the time being.
also appears that the human rights situation in
the North is not improving under the country's new
leadership. Around 200,000 North Koreans are
believed to be living in prison and labor camps.
Large numbers of North Koreans brave great risk to
their and their families' safety each year by
attempting to escape across the border into China.
An activist in Seoul reported this week that a
group of refugees were executed after having been
repatriated from China.
Borowiec is a South Korea-based writer.
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