Pyongyang's Diplomatic Outreach: Reasons To Be Sceptical

BMI View: North Korea's diplomatic outreach to Japan and China will reduce geopolitical tensions in the near term, but is unlikely to address the concerns of South Korea and the US, which will view Pyongyang with scepticism. Given that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons, the deadlock will persist.

After a two-month long period in March and April during which North Korea adopted extremely militaristic rhetoric, threatening to launch nuclear attacks on the US, Japan, and South Korea, Pyongyang is moving to reduce tensions with its neighbours. Most notably, t he North has pursued diplomatic initiatives with Japan and China to break out of its present self-inflicted isolation.

Pyongyang Seeks To Entice Tokyo

The surprise four-day visit to North Korea in mid-May by Isao Iijima, a senior adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, marked the start of the attempted rapprochement ( see 'Abe Aid Visit Could Reduce Tensions', May 16 ) . Iijima was a logical interlocutor, for he had played a key role in the summits between the then-Japanese premier Junichiro Koizumi and former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in 2002 and 2004, and had worked to resolve the fate of missing Japanese nationals that were kidnapped by Pyongyang's agents in the 1970s and 1980s. It is possible that the North will show greater openness on th is matter , paving the way for an improved relationship with Japan. Abe himself recently spoke of the possibility of meeting North Korea's present leader, Kim Jong Un. W e believe that by inviting Iijima, the North was deliberately trying to undermine three-way cooperation between Japan, South Korea, and the US. A Southern spokesman stated as much, describing Iijima's visit as 'unhelpful'.

Pyongyang Needs To Bring Beijing Back On Side

Of greater significance was the three-day visit to Beijing by Kim Jong Un's special envoy, Vice-Marshal Choe Ryong Hae, in late May. Choe is Director of the General Political Bureau of the North Korean People's Army (KPA) and one of the regime's most senior figures. On his last day in Beijing, he met Chinese President Xi Jinping. The North is clearly trying to improve relations with China, its traditional Great Power ally and biggest provider of economic assistance. Although there has been no formal break in relations between the two nations , President Xi has been more critical of Pyongyang than his predecessor following its December 2012 satellite launch and February 2013 nuclear test . Beijing is evidently becoming frustrated with its neighbour's actions, which it deems negative for regional stability. Consequently , i n May, one of China's biggest banks , Bank of China , ended its dealings with North Korea's Foreign Trade Bank , thus placing great pressure on Pyongyang's external financing arrangements . That said, we do not believe that China is ready to 'abandon' North Korea ( see 'China Unlikely To Abandon North Korea', March 11 ).

Following his meeting with President Xi, Choe stated that North Korea is willing to rejoin the 'six-party talks' (involving the two Koreas, China, the US, Japan, and Russia) aimed at persuading Pyongyang to denuclearise. These began in 2003 under Chinese sponsorship, but the North abandoned them in 2009 and pressed ahead with a long-range missile and nuclear test. However, the North's official media stated on May 28 , 2013 that the regime would not unilaterally give up its nuclear arms while under threat from Washington. Indeed, w e believe that the present regime in Pyongyang will never dispose of its atomic arsenal after having invested so much time, effort, and money in building them. The regime regards its nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantor of its security and sovereignty, and will thus not give in to Chinese pressure. Furthermore, North Korea amended its constitution in April 2012 to declare itself a nuclear power. Therefore, even if Pyongyang returns to 'six-party talks', this would most likely be intended to extract economic rewards while providing nothing significant in return. Over the long term, we believe that the North will expand its nuclear arsenal substantially so that future negotiations will focus on nuclear arms limitations or minor reductions rather than outright disarmament.

South Korea And US Likely To Remain Cautious

We expect South Korea and the US to retain a cautious attitude to any Northern diplomatic initiatives. The South's new president, Park Geun-hye, who initially adopted a conciliatory stance towards Pyongyang, feels rebuffed by the Kim regime, and following the latter's extremely aggressive sabre-rattling in March-April, does not want to seem in a hurry to return to dialogue , for fear of looking weak . Seoul is also unhappy that Pyongyang decided to effectively shut down the jointly-run Kaesong Industrial Park just north of their mutual border in early April. On May 28, the North invited South Korean businessmen to talks on reopening the industrial complex, but the South stated that the matter needs to be discussed at a government level rather than by business leaders. Although South Korea would certainly like to see the Kaesong facilities reactivated, it does not wish to take any steps to reward the North. For its part, the US is likely to let Seoul take the lead on inter-Korean relations .

Military Reshuffles Hint At Instability

Meanwhile, we believe there may be a power struggle underway in the North. In May, Kim Jong Un replaced the defence minister for the third time in 13 months and the chief of the general staff for the second time since July 2012. The first deputy defence minister was also replaced. More broadly, virtually all top military pos i t ion s have changed hands since Kim came to power in December 2011. The scale and frequency of these reshuffles are unprecedented, as previous incumbents typically held their posts for many years at a time. This could suggest that Kim Jong Un is still trying to consolidate his grip on the powerful military. However, by changing top command posts too often , Kim risks undermining the morale and loyalty of powerful generals. If the p utative power struggle intensifies, then this could lead to more erratic behaviour from the North, as opposing factions pursue contradictory policies.

This article is tagged to:
Sector: Country Risk
Geography: North Korea

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