The Debate

North Korea’s Charm Offensive Starts Showing Results

Pyongyang’s decision to hold talks with Seoul was likely influenced by economic and geopolitical factors.

North Korea’s Charm Offensive Starts Showing Results
Credit: Wikicommons

North and South Korea have again agreed to return to talks, this time aimed at reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint development industrial park.

On Saturday, government officials from Seoul and Pyongyang plan to meet at an administrative building near the 38th Parallel to resume talks over opening Kaesong, which North Korea ordered shut this spring. The jointly-run park was the last remaining legacy of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy and involved 123 South Korean businesses employing laborers from North Korea. It served as a huge source of hard-currency for the regime in Pyongyang as the South Korean businesses paid the workers’ salaries to the North Korean government, which in turn paid some of it the workers while pocketing the rest.

The agreement to meet followed consider diplomatic haggling between Seoul and Pyongyang. North Korea had originally proposed that the South Korean business owners meet with North Korean government officials at the Kaesong complex, which Seoul rejected demanding instead that government-to-government talks be held first. In response, North Korea proposed that South Korean government officials and Kaesong business owners meet with DPRK officials at the Kaesong site, which South Korea again rejected.

Seoul then countered on Thursday with a proposal for government level talks to be held at the Panmunjom site along the border, where the two sides have met before including last month. Within hours North Korea accepted the South’s proposal, essentially caving on all major points of disputes (again).

As always, it’s impossible to ascertain with any degree of certainty the rationale behind Pyongyang’s decision-making. It’s quite possible the decision is mostly economic in nature. On Wednesday, the 46 electronic companies that operated at Kaesong threatened to withdraw from the project permanently unless the site was promptly reopened, claiming their idle equipment was deteriorating beyond the point of repair. Although North Korea was willing to gamble with the site by shuttering it, it would not want to lose it permanently given the largesse it provides for Pyongyang.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

At the same time, a number of external geopolitical factors surrounded the agreement to restart talks, all of which could have influenced North Korea’s decision. For instance, the full extent of North Korea’s diplomatic isolation was underscored at the ASEAN Regional Forum this week, when the 27 participating nations and the EU issued a joint declaration that called on Pyongyang to denuclearize.

Another potential factor, oddly enough, might have been Russia. Accounts by diplomats involved in the six-party talks have characterized Moscow as playing a minimal role in the process. However, with China taking an increasingly hardline stance towards Pyongyang, the North Korean regime reached out to Russia by sending Kim Kye-Gwan, a longtime nuclear negotiator and one of the officials who recently visited China, to Moscow on Friday.

According to Yonhap, while there Kim held talks with Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov and briefly met with Vladimir Titov, Russia's first deputy foreign minister. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson later said the Kim-Morgulov meeting “proceeded very substantively and constructively” and expressed cautious optimism that six-party talks would resume shortly, albeit noting that “this will depend on the position of Pyongyang and on international community demands.” The spokesperson also said that Russian-DPRK talks would continue.

By striking a deal with the South prior to this meeting, North Korea might have intended to draw Russia to its side. Besides the diplomatic leverage this would entail, Moscow also hopes to invest in a number of significant economic development projects on the Korean Peninsula but has implied it wants greater stability between the two Koreas before proceeding. Securing Russian investment would advance Kim Jong-Un’s desire to increase the economic vitality of the regime, while also reducing Pyongyang’s economic dependency on China. This latter objective is likely seen as especially pressing by Kim given China’s recent stand-offish posture towards the North.

Finally, as always, China is likely to have factored prominently into North Korean decision-making. This week North Korea sent Kim Song-nam, the deputy director of the Workers' Party's International Affairs Department, to China. He is the third senior DPRK official to visit China in recent weeks. Furthermore, Pyongyang had Kim Kye-Gwan stop in China on his way to Russia.

Significantly, these trips and North Korea’s acceptance of the South’s proposal for talks over Kaesong coincided with South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s trip to China, which by all signs was a major success. As Oxford Analtyica, a global analysis and advisory firm, noted in an analysis this week, China and South Korea’s interests increasingly overlap. This is obviously a major concern for Pyongyang, especially given its own recent frosty relations with China.

The fact that Park was given a state visit by China before Kim Jong-Un—even though Kim assumed power more than a year before Park did— is a major embarrassment to North Korea. Worse yet, in a sign of just how far the government’s ability to control information within North Korea’s borders has eroded, Pyongyang’s official media even acknowledged Park’s trip on state television.

These factors have made it all the more pressing for Pyongyang that Kim Jong-Un be invited to China in short order. It is extremely likely that the decision to agree to all of South Korea’s demands was influenced in no small part by this objective, as China has repeatedly called for dialogue between the parties involved in the Korean crisis.

So far, there’s been no indication China has agreed to invite Kim Jong-Un to China because of the North’s willingness to discuss Kaesong with South Korea. In fact, it will probably wait for six-party talks to restart before the invitation is extended.

However, following the North’s acceptance of South Korea’s proposal, Beijing announced that it will send an official to Pyongyang later this month for the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended active fighting in the Korean War. The official, who has yet to be announced, will be the first Chinese official to visit North Korea since Li Jianguo, the vice chairman of the National People’s Congress, traveled there in November to convey that Xi Jinping did not want North Korea to follow through on its threat to launch a ballistic missile test.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Kim Jong-Un failed to heed that message and has been paying for it ever since. However, after much time in the diplomatic abyss, North Korea’s persistent charm offensive appears to finally be paying off, however slowly.