There are rumours that Kim Jong-il will visit China late-March. If the visit takes place, it must be after the 18 March when the joint US-ROK military training ends, which is regarded by North Korea as a prelude to war. The supreme commander can’t be seen to leave the country during that period. Alternately, the visit might be made by a top official in the North Korean system, such as Kim Young-nam. So, what should we expect from this meeting?
Broadly speaking, our expectations can be framed around Kim Jong-il’s promise to his people. Kim has promised to the North Korean people to make the country strong and prosperous by 2012, the centenary of the birthday of his father, Kim Il-sung’s. On the face of it, this promise is illusory. The North Korean leadership is probably the least accountable leadership in the world. It was casual about the plight of its people during the famine of the mid-1990’s, and on numerous other occasions…
…As for the nuclear question, the Six Party Talks are still in official hibernation, with a flurry of bilateral consultations taking their place. Recent Chinese statements that the talks could restart in the first half of this year are promising. The renewal of talks would place China back in its preferred position as mediator. Outside of these negotiations, North Korea is often portrayed as China’s headache. When North Korea is anchored in the negotiation room, it becomes the US’s headache. Getting negotiations started is therefore clearly in China’s interests. It could also help China on another nuclear case, namely Iran. Getting North Korea back to the table could demonstrate the value of negotiations instead of sanctions.
But restarting these talks will require China to employ some deft diplomatic manoeuvring. The US and its allies have demanded progress on North Korean denuclearisation before starting talks on other issues. North Korea has demanded bilateral talks with the US, and an abolition of the US’ hostile policies, including sanctions…
…A further issue is that the US is more constrained by the continuation of bilateral negotiations. Bilateral negotiations could sideline US allies like Japan and South Korea. They could also reaffirm to North Korea that there is a reward for abandoning the Six Party Talks.
Despite all of this there remains a possibility that the Six Party Talks could be restarted. A possibility which would satisfy North Korea on bilateral talks, and the US, Japan and South Korea on Six Party talks, could be for the Chinese to restart Six Party talks and the sub-working groups simultaneously. One of these sub-groups could deal with bilateral US-DPRK relations including diplomatic recognition. The US and DPRK might then meet bilaterally in this Six Party talks sanctioned format. Or the Chinese might have other similar diplomatic tactics to secure face-saving for both parties.
For China, a visit by Kim could and would be employed to confirm North Korean willingness to reengage in talks. Kim will want something in exchange from the Chinese. Most likely, this will take the form of investment, and this is where the economic side comes in.
Every time Kim goes to China the question is posed about whether North Korea will copy China’s economic reforms. The simple answer is that, for North Korea, this is not really possible. North Korea’s leaders realised early on that full-blown economic reforms would blow the current regime away. Regime survival trumps the economic benefits of following the path of China and Vietnam’s economic reforms. And ever since North Korea started timid economic reforms in 2002 there have been successive efforts to rein in market forces; currency reform in 2009 being the latest attempt to stamp out middle class traders selling Chinese goods in local markets…
…Even Chinese investment will not be enough to reverse North Korea’s dismal economy. North Korea will not be prosperous in 2012 by any standards. So Kim cannot easily make North Korea both strong and prosperous – although he may make it strong by sticking with the nuclear weapons.
The nuclear arsenal, then, is both a bargaining tool, and the regime’s insurance policy. North Korea, without nuclear capacity and missile technology; would be a poor Communist country in a remote area in Asia likely to attract about as much news coverage and international attention as Laos.
Kim has little room for manoeuvre. By 2012, he has promised to make North Korea both strong and prosperous; a deadline that will be very difficult to meet no matter how successful his diplomacy. He also faces the vexed issue of succession. Notwithstanding possible new investments and renewed momentum in relation to the Six Party Talks, a visit to China will only serve to highlight these problems.
Jonas Parello-Plesner is Executive Director of a Danish NGO. He used to work as senior advisor with the Danish government on Asian affairs. He is on the board of editors of the Danish magazine Raeson and regular columnist on Asian affairs.