North Korea, isolated from even its traditional allies like China for most of this year, appears to be making another periodic or cyclical turn toward opening up to its neighbors, as more signs of economic problems and food shortages emerge. Importantly, its neighbors and other interested regional powers are showing an interest in facilitating such an opening. Whether the nascent overtures will turn into something more substantial is a matter of speculation at this point, but it is worth looking at what has happened so far in order to measure those prospects.
Last Friday a North Korean official made furtive statements to a South Korean politician that Seoul has taken to mean Pyongyang is interested renewed dialogue. The North Korean official said Seoul should implement their past agreements, and remember that South Korea had said it “would discuss any issues arising between the two Koreas.” Another South Korean official said Pyongyang is interested in the removal of economic sanctions, and that “it [North Korea] will respond in some form once the ongoing joint exercises come to an end.”
Concerning those ongoing joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, codenamed Ulchi Freedom Guardian, the Combined Forces Command (CFC) said it had completed its drills ahead of schedule this year. Sources who spoke with Yonhap News said the early finish may have been intended to reduce tension with North Korea that had flared before the drills started, just as Seoul had proposed high-level talks. While the lack of an official reason for the early finish leaves its relation to North Korea ambiguous, it allows the North to infer what it likes, and perhaps use it as domestic justification for later cross-border talks.
After earlier reports this summer that North Korea was experiencing an unusually hot and dry season that resulted in damaged crops and poor yields, The Korea Herald reported Monday that its rice imports from China had spiked sharply in July. This is significant because China reportedly allowed no oil exports to North Korea in the first seven months of this year, amid an ongoing high-level diplomatic freeze between the two countries. Beijing did however allow $7.02 million in rice to be exported in July, a 115 percent increase over the previous year and a 53 percent increase from June. While this might not indicate an outright thaw in ties, it shows at the very least that China is not prepared to allow North Korea to destabilize due to food shortages or possible famine.
China also still plans take part in the annual joint trade fair in Dandong on October 16, and will reportedly send more than 2,000 firms to participate and sign business deals that last year amounted to $1.6 billion. As North Korea’s only other significant investment partner besides South Korea, China’s continued participation and its sending of a large delegation are another indication that China is seeking to maintain a baseline in this relationship, most likely with the expectation that relations will improve once Pyongyang’s new leader Kim Jong-un has successfully consolidated his power base.
Aside from North Korea’s bilateral actions with its two neighbors, China and the U.S. are expected to devote considerable attention to North Korea when their two leaders meet at the APEC summit in Beijing this November. According to a senior U.S. embassy official in Beijing, Robert S. Wang, President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama are expected to discuss the “Korean Peninsula and U.S.-China economic cooperation” during their summit. While the two superpowers have found fewer and fewer areas for cooperation in the recent past, North Korea could prove to be one of them for at least the short-term. Neither country has been able to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table on its own, or even convince it to reduce its recent uptick in missile tests. North Korea’s recent isolation may allow China and the U.S. to negotiate more openly with each other on this topic.
While this is by no means a concerted regional movement toward engaging North Korea, and while Pyongyang may in fact only be making a short, minor nod toward openness, there does appear to be some momentum now that the climax of this summer’s joint U.S.-South Korean military drills is past. The strength of that momentum (should it exist) depends on Pyongyang for the most part. The still relatively new leadership of Kim Jong-un is probably not strong enough yet to turn outward and engage diplomatically in a significant way (with the possible exception of China). However, the extent to which it could can be a good way to gauge the new leader’s progress in consolidating his grip on power. That is probably the most regional observers can expect in the short-term.