The Debate

Why is Indonesia Courting North Korea?

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The Debate

Why is Indonesia Courting North Korea?

Indonesia has said it wants to increase economic ties with Pyongyang. The relationship is an old one, however.

Indonesia’s odd relationship with North Korea is back in the news as Jakarta seeks to take advantage of the changing economic conditions in the Hermit Kingdom.

Last week Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa spent three days in North Korea where he met with his North Korean counterpart Pak Ui-chun and Kim Yong-nam, the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly and the second highest ranking official in the DPRK. 

Marty made no attempt to hide the fact that the primary purpose of his visit was to position Indonesia to take advantage of the economic changes North Korea is currently undertaking. Most notably, earlier this month Pyongyang announced that it was establishing special economic zones in every province in a bid to expand foreign investment in the country.

At the beginning of his trip, Marty said that he had been sent to North Korea by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to help create a conducive climate for Indonesian businesses in North Korea.

To that end, during the trip he proposed to his hosts sending an Indonesian business delegation to Pyongyang to explore ways to further increase bilateral economic ties. In what appeared to be a message intended for domestic consumption, he later said Indonesia should follow up on business opportunities in the reclusive state especially in light of North Korea’s proposed special economic zones.

The entire incident highlights Indonesia’s peculiar relationship with North Korea and so-called rogue states more generally. On the one hand, Indonesia is one of the world’s largest democracies and is generally viewed positively in Western nations for encouraging democracy in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). At the same time, Indonesia has continued to maintain often overlooked ties with some of the biggest pariah states in the world, including North Korea, Iran, and Syria.

Indonesia’s relationship with North Korea dates back to the 1960s. The two countries established diplomatic ties in 1961 and North Korean founder Kim Il-sung visited Jakarta four years later.

While most countries have shunned North Korea in the post-Cold War era, Jakarta has continued its relationship with Pyongyang, albeit it somewhat cooled off from earlier decades. Still, the two countries continue to maintain diplomatic relations and have embassies in each other’s capitals. Indonesia also lobbied strongly for Pyongyang’s inclusion in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

High-level diplomatic visits between the two countries are not infrequent. Shortly after George W. Bush branded North Korea as a member of the Axis of Evil, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri visited North Korea as part of a larger tour of Northeast Asia.

Indonesian President Yudhoyono scheduled two official visits to North Korea in 2006 but had to postpone both of them for different reasons. Marty himself has visited the country as Indonesia’s foreign minister, taking a trip to Pyongyang in 2010. Kim Yong-nam, who Marty met with on this most recent trip, has in turn visited Jakarta a couple of times over the years. During the most recent one in 2012, President Yudhoyono honored Kim with a state dinner.

The positive relationship between Jakarta and Pyongyang also extends to the Indonesian people. A recent BBC poll found that 42 percent of Indonesians hold a positive view of North Korea. That was the second highest favorability rating North Korea received among all the countries that were polled. Only the 48 percent of Ghanaians who hold a favorable view of North Korea topped Indonesia’s support for Pyongyang. Meanwhile, only 32 percent of Chinese polled had a favorable view of Pyongyang, compared to 32 percent who held a negative view of it.

Indonesia has long-defended its relationship with North Korea on the grounds that isolating countries is counterproductive and that Indonesia can influence Pyongyang’s behavior by maintaining ties with it. To be fair, Indonesia in the past has often strongly lobbied North Korea to change its behavior on the nuclear issue.

However, this aspect of Indonesia’s diplomacy with North Korea appears to be diminishing in importance relative to bilateral economic ties. While in North Korea last week, for example, Marty noted that Indonesian-North Korean trade has witnessed impressive growth in recent years.

“Bilateral trade has grown more than 45 percent. It’s been proving a real example of our potential for economic cooperation,” he said in a prepared statement.

Media reports of Marty’s trip all indicate that economic ties trumped concerns over North Korea’s foreign and nuclear policies. This is despite the fact that South Korean President Park Geun-hye was in Jakarta at the beginning of this month and urged Indonesia to try and help North Korea “make the right choice” about abandoning its nuclear weapons arsenal.

Zachary Keck is Associate Editor of The Diplomat. He can be found on Twitter @ZacharyKeck.