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     Jun 29, 2012

North Korea goes a-schmoozing
By Steven Borowiec

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.

Indonesian 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 involvement.

"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.

More 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.

According to 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.

Much 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 six-party talks.

"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 Korea's economy.

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.

It 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.

Steven Borowiec is a South Korea-based writer.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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