Is North Korea Opening Up?


While the spectacular sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan in March and Kim Jong-Un’s elevation to the North Korean leadership in September prompted plenty of coverage, the Australian press have missed a more complex story about North Korea that has the potential to profoundly alter the political and economic dynamics of the Korean peninsula. As much of the world talks of further sanctions, China has embarked upon a sustained campaign to push North Korea down the road of economic reform.

Although the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea have long been ostensible allies, the differences between the two nations are now significant, especially on the economic front. Yet Western media commentary on China’s often uneasy relationship with its increasingly impoverished neighbour rarely gets beyond simplistic evocations of "socialist brotherhood".

In August, for example, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that a recent flurry of diplomatic activity between the two demonstrated that "North Korea has given up trying to mend fences with the U.S. and will concentrate on its relationship with its main patron, China. If anything, it appears that China and North Korea had renewed their vows as communist brethren, a bond forged in the 1950s when China intervened on North Korea’s behalf in the Korean War."

Official Chinese government pronouncements do tend to cast relations in the rosy nostalgic hue of Red brotherhood, but the reality is China’s ongoing support for the North Korean regime is underpinned by hard strategic considerations. The United States still has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, and the last thing China wants is those same troops lined up along its border with a reunified Korea.

China, like South Korea, also fears the consequences of a sudden crumbling of the Pyongyang Government, which would almost certainly result in tens of thousands of refugees looking for food and work streaming into China and South Korea. The South, along with other regional players, would then face the astronomical cost of modernising and integrating into the region a stagnant command economy that lags decades behind its neighbours in terms of technology and productivity.

For all its efforts to ensure North Korea’s longevity, China is often frustrated by Pyongyang’s continual reliance on aid and by its confrontational stance vis-a-vis South Korea, Japan and the United States. Which makes it all the more surprising that North Korea has suddenly received considerable column space and air time in China’s state media, and diplomatic relations appear more active than they have for years.

Following Kim Jong-Il’s second visit to China in less than six months in August, a delegation of Chinese Politburo members visited North Korea in October, as China’s Ambassador in Pyongyang, Liu Hongcai, lauded an "extraordinary year of China-DPRK ties" via China’s state news agency Xinhua. Later the same month senior Chinese military figures attended Pyongyang’s 60th anniversary celebrations of China’s intervention in the Korean War.

These visits would be of limited interest if they were simply a tokenistic renewal of vows between "communist brethren" as the Sydney Morning Herald suggests. There is considerable evidence to suggest, however, that Beijing has embarked on an offensive to pressure Pyongyang into embracing economic reforms similar to those undertaken by China since 1978. In other words, gradual economic liberalisation under the firm hand of the Korean Workers Party.

One of the telling indicators of Beijing’s new strategy has been the tone of recent Chinese state media coverage. Most notable was an extraordinary editorial run by the Global Times — a newspaper owned by the People’s Daily — immediately after Kim Jong-Il’s visit to China in August. The piece was entitled "North Korea’s reform and opening up," the stock phrase used to describe the post-Maoist era in China. The article urged other nations not to marginalise North Korea and pointed to signs the country is prepared to embrace Chinese-style reforms and engage economically with the outside world.

This week the major South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo (Korea Daily News) claimed that Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao broke a long standing taboo in China-DPRK relations earlier this year, by openly using the phrase "reform and opening up" in their meetings with Kim Jong-Il. Hu also reportedly urged Kim to introduce market mechanisms into the North Korean economy.

While the optimistic tone of the Global Times editorial may just be wishful thinking on China’s part, there are signs Pyongyang is edging down the path favoured by Beijing. In mid-September Xinhua noted the publication of an article in the tightly controlled North Korea press "hailing the remarkable social and economic development in northeast China over the past six decades." Significantly the northeast is the part of China directly adjoining the DPRK.

Last week Aidan Foster-Carter reported in the Asia Times a meeting in Beijing on 10 October between the governors of the three Chinese provinces closest to North Korea (Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang) and the party secretaries of the Korean provinces just over the border (North Pyongan, Jagang, Ryanggang and North Hamgyong). According to Foster-Carter a trade agreement was signed, although no details have yet been released. This followed a longer article by the same writer in September, in which Foster-Carter argued that North Korean economic modernisation with China’s help was the best scenario for the flagging nation.

From China’s perspective, economic liberalisation in North Korea would mean less aid and potential new markets for Chinese goods and services. Chinese businesses already have a low-key presence in North Korea: the basement of Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo International Hotel for example features a Chinese-owned and run casino, karaoke bar and massage parlour.

Beijing is also eyeing North Korea’s largely untapped mineral reserves, which include large coal deposits. Perhaps most importantly, in the longer-term Beijing is likely seeking to exert greater influence in a North Korea firmly integrated into its economic sphere — and to rein in Pyongyang’s proclivity for destabilising face-offs with the U.S.

North Korea has made abortive moves toward introducing small-scale market reforms before, but if China is serious this time about pressuring its neighbour into accepting reforms it’s hard to see what other choices Pyongyang has, given the dire state of the North Korean economy. Nevertheless, the outcome of China’s strategy remains an open question, since the North Korean regime has proven singularly adept at surviving against all odds while defiantly pursuing its own agenda, whatever the hopes and wishes of its friends and enemies.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.