North Korea’s state-run KCNA news agency reported that Vice Foreign Minister Ri Kil-song led a delegation to visit seven Southeast Asian countries starting on January 22. The delegation is expected to visit Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. Cambodia and Malaysia are the two new stops added to the itinerary since Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong led a delegation to the region last August. During the last visit, Ri Su-yong discussed economic and military cooperation with his counterparts, The South China Morning Post reported.
Whenever North Korean diplomats engage in such globetrotting, their advances are characterized as North Korean attempts to break out of diplomatic isolation. As North Korea faces increasing pressure from pro forma supporters such as China, it seeks diplomatic support elsewhere, the logic goes. But such a geopolitical framing not appropriate to understand North Korea’s overtures to Southeast Asia. Other countries – China, Japan, and the U.S., for instance – assume a “big brother” role in ASEAN, offering economic aid in the hopes of gaining political capital and diplomatic support. There is no way that North Korea could compete with the many other patrons who are offering economic aid to Southeast Asia.
Instead, North Korea approaches Southeast Asia is as an equal or even a “little brother.” Just like Japan and China, North Korea sees economic opportunities in Southeast Asia. While the emphasis on the political dimension of Japan and China’s aid is apt because of the sheer scale of what these two major economies can offer, analysis of North Korea’s relations with Southeast Asia should shed this geopolitical frame and focus more on the matter at hand: economic profits.
North Korea is not trying to break out of diplomatic isolation, but economic “self-sufficiency” – a guiding principle of North Korean political ideology that has failed miserably. Geoffrey See, a Singaporean businessman who frequently travels to North Korea, argues that what North Korean leader Kim Jong-un really wants is a stronger economy that is less reliant on China. For example, one of the economic zones North Korea is investing in is Wonsan on the east coast of North Korea – facing Japan and bordering South Korea, about as far as you can get from China.
See works in particular with young North Korean entrepreneurs. On North Korea’s business attitude in general, See observed, “About six years ago when we first started our program, our counterparts would often start off with a very long spiel about socialism and how this is the system they have and they are never going to change it. In recent years instead of saying that, people talk about… trying to bring in what’s best from overseas, and try to adjust it to fit into the system. So I think that’s a very interesting change in terms of thinking.”
Such a change in thinking is also starting to have concrete effects. Agricultural reforms have been introduced since 2012 that allow farmers to keep a portion of their quota and anything they produce in surplus; in part due to these reforms, North Korea’s total food production is now approximately 5.03 million tons – the highest it has been since the early 1990s. Furthermore, North Korea is developing 13 special economic zones, and the purpose of these zones is to increase international exchanges and cooperation. North Korea plans to hold investor relations sessions in Pyongyang and other foreign cities to draw foreign investment – this could be one aspect of Ri Kil-song’s trip to Southeast Asia.
A continued openness to economic reforms and liberalization is hinted at in Kim’s New Year’s speech, though one should be careful not to read too much into it: he urged the Cabinet and state organs to “make proactive efforts to establish the economic management method of our style as demanded by reality, so that all the economic organs and enterprises can conduct their business activities creatively on their own initiative.” The ambitious, ideology-exporting North Korea is the North Korea of yesteryears. The North Korea of today is just trying to get by.
North Korea’s increasing focus on the economy can also be seen from a close analysis of Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong’s trip to Russia last October. Bilateral economic cooperation was high on the agenda; tangible accomplishments included a deal to receive 50,000 tons of humanitarian food aid (wheat) from Russia and agreements with the local authorities of four Far Eastern provinces to develop long-term bilateral agricultural projects. The Rajin transit terminal was also discussed. Other recent economic developments between Russia and North Korea include the 2012 agreement to reschedule the $11 billion debt North Korea owes Russia from Soviet times and the agreement to establish a Russia-DPRK Business Council. As Georgy Toloraya noted for 38 North, “Unlike in the past, economic cooperation between North Korea and Russia is supposed to be based on the principle of mutual benefit and has preceded political rapprochement” (emphasis added).
And finally, consider what North Korea would be up against if it were really serious about competing for influence in Southeast Asia with Japan and China. For example, under Japan’s recently revised Official Development Assistance (ODA) charter, which emphasizes using ODA to promote “rule of law” and “democratization” based on the principle of “proactive pacifism,” ODA to Southeast Asia is expected to expand – especially to Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia and Laos. China is also making changes to its economic diplomacy in ways that could have significant consequences for its relationship with Southeast Asia. China has unveiled plans for a $50 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to which all ten ASEAN members have signed on as founding members. Chinese President Xi Jinping has also pledged $40 billion to set up a Silk Road Infrastructure Fund, and these projects are beginning to pick up steam this year – including potential arrangements with Thailand and Laos.
Sanchita Basu Das, a fellow at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asia Studies, told The Financial Times in regards to Japanese and Chinese ties with Southeast Asia: “There is a kind of competition among the big players. In the next year we are going to continue to see this kind of rivalry, using economics as a tool.” North Korea is not a “big player” – but North Korea is not playing this game with Japan and China. While for Japan and China economics might be a “tool” for gaining influence, for North Korea, economic gain is the end in and of itself. While geopolitics might be zero-sum (i.e. if China gains influence in one country, then Japan loses influence) economics can be positive-sum. North Korea cannot wrest influence away from Japan or China in Southeast Asia, but is hoping to get a slice of the economic pie. Though it is not clear yet what will come out of this trip, expect small-scale arrangements for economic cooperation rather than any sort of political realignment.