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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Sources: European Views of China-DPRK Relations

by | October 10th, 2012 | 07:00 am

The European Council on Foreign Relations is an EU-wide effort launched in 2007 with a presence in a number of EU capitals (Berlin, London, Madrid, Paris, Rome and Sofia, with offices to come in Brussels and Warsaw). They have teamed up with some existing organizations, including the French Asia Centre to distribute foreign policy research.

It’s refreshing to read something from a different perspective, and the Asia Centre’s new publications on China-DPRK offer some interesting insights. The short, crisply written piece does the service of summarizing a number of recent Chinese writings on North Korea. The summaries are nuanced, and what emerges is a lively debate on the DPRK that is worth reading. But there are also some issues on which commenters rallied around the Chinese flag. A few things that struck us:

  • Francois Godemant reviews a symposium organized by the China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) and carried in Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 1, 2012. Of interest is not only the doubts cast by participants on Kim Jong Un’s prospects, but the subtle and not-so-subtle critique of how China’s missteps on the peninsula have only served to strengthen the US position in the region; Chu Shulong—one of the sharpest analysts of US-China relations—is particularly critical.
  • Antoine Bondaz summarizes Shen Dingli, Zhang Liangui, and Liu Jiangyong, “The launch of the North Korean satellite: a technical error but a political success”, Dongfang Zaobao, 14 April 2012. Particularly disappointing is the willingness of these authors to justify North Korea’s launch not only on international legal grounds (peaceful use of space) but strategic, political and even military grounds as well. Not helpful.
  • Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga summarizes half a dozen pieces on North Korea’s economic prospects. Perhaps because of the significance of reforms of the external sector, Chinese commenters appear to believe that real policy changes have been afoot since January 2010: “In quick succession, North Korea announced the Ten-Year Strategy Plan for National Economic Development (2011-2020); created the Taepung International Investment Group and the State Development Bank; and elevated the Rason Economic and Trade Zone (罗先经济贸易区, luoxian jingji maoyi qu) to the new status of “special city” (特别市, tebie shi). These initiatives coincided with an unprecedented four visits by Kim Jong-il to China between May 2010 and August 2011.”
  • The commenters are divided on whether these measures signal real reform. Zhang Liangui, for example, says the goal of North Korea’s economic reform has been to support the “military-first” policy by creating new sources of funding for the military’s nuclear and missile programs. “The reforms of early 2010 took place because the North Korean military needed foreign currency after UN sanctions cut off traditional revenue streams, such as Japanese remittances, South Korean donations, and arms exports.”
  • All seem to believe that China has a central role in trying to push the reform agenda, but all the writers also cited the need to improve relations between the US and North Korea as a precondition for real reform. The sense of frustration with North Korea on this issue is palpable.
  • Finally, we were dismayed—but not surprised–by David Péneau’s summary of four pieces on the refugee issue. The writers showed a thorough awareness—and deep distrust–of the underground railroad and networks operating in China. But all deliberately use the term tuobeizhe (脫北者, which means, “inhabitants of the north who have left their country”) rather than nanmin (难民, “refugee”), which might implicate authorities in upholding their obligations under the Refugee Convention. Not one of them acknowledges that some immigrants could have fled North Korea for political reasons; Gao Zugui even denies the existence of political persecution in North Korea. Rather, they tended to view the refugee issue as an irritant stirred up by South Korean political constraints and even US efforts to constrain the China-DPRK relationship.

In sum, a useful but sobering read all around; hats off to the Asia Center.