News / Asia

China Nudges North Korea to Reform With Limited Success

A Chinese man rides his bicycle past the North Korean embassy in Beijing, November 5, 2010.
A Chinese man rides his bicycle past the North Korean embassy in Beijing, November 5, 2010.

Multimedia

Audio

Three months after North Korea shelled a South Korean island and threatened a wider conflict, military envoys from both sides sat down for rare talks this week.

Determining North Korea's motives is always difficult, but many observers say that behind the scenes, China is nudging its communist ally back to diplomacy.

Listen to Kate Woodsome's report

Beijing is Pyongyang's only constant friend, and its aid and oil keep the lights on in North Korea. Beijing has tried to use this sway to keep the state stable, but even China has its limits.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il rarely leaves the country. But when he does, he travels in style. Last year, his personal armored train wound its way across the border into China to meet with senior officials. Twice, in three months.

“Those two visits were both closely bound to the succession, which was revealed to the world last September and October," says John Everard, who served as Britain’s ambassador to Pyongyang from 2006 to 2008.

Everard says the aging Kim was seeking China’s support for his youngest son to replace him. But, he adds, each time the North Korean leader leaves his isolated corner of the world, it is an opportunity for China to show him what life could be like in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, with a few reforms.

“The Chinese have said repeatedly that the DPRK has to open up," he says. "Remember that in Kim Jong Il’s visit to China, where he was shown around the special economic areas, we’re quite clear the Chinese were trying to ram home a message.”

For North Korea, China is an example of authoritarian capitalism done well: a Communist party that has maintained its grip on power while making market-orientated reforms.

And while Washington and Seoul are using sanctions to try to force nuclear-armed North Korea to make similar political reforms, Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation’s Center for U.S. Korea Policy says Beijing worries that pressuring the regime too much could lead to collapse.

“I think the dilemma that the Chinese face is that North Korea on its current path may be inherently unstable," says Snyder. "And so investments might be a potential way of trying to, in the long-term, achieve a kind of reform that would support the objective of maintaining stability.”

One Chinese company says it is planning one of the biggest-ever private investments in North Korea, a two billion dollar stake in a key port. A “letter of intent” obtained by VOA’s Korean service outlines plans by China’s Shangdi Guanqun Investment Company to develop the Rason special economic zone, a sliver of land in North Korea’s far northeast that borders Russia and China.

If the proposal inked in December is carried out as planned in the next five to 10 years, the firm would build a road, a refinery, a steel mill and a port.

In return, China would get rights to North Korea’s Musan iron ore mine and greater access to the Sea of Japan, a key entryway to disputed islands claimed by Beijing and Tokyo, and a warm-water port accessible year-round.

Snyder says deals like this are hard for North Korea to refuse.

“North Korea needs a certain amount of hard currency in order to be able to survive and to sustain itself, and so it is a point of potential leverage and weakness especially for a state that has thrived on isolation.” he says.

Despite China’s economic might, its leverage has limits. Even for politically-connected Chinese businesses, North Korean business ventures are risky investments, says Drew Thompson, the director of China Studies at the research group the Nixon Center in Washington.

“They have basically sold these projects again and again and again to interested Chinese. And in February 2010, the Indians were looking at the same iron plant,” he says.

Thompson adds that North Korean’s arbitrary, capricious approach to business has hampered growth at the Rason zone, which has only attracted about $100 million in foreign investment since it was created 20 years ago.  He has counted fewer than 200 Chinese businesses that have invested in relatively small projects throughout the whole country. But he points out those companies, and Beijing, are thinking long-term.

“The desire amongst many Chinese companies is to get a foothold in the market so that they’re well positioned in the event that reform and opening takes place in North Korea,” says Thompson.

For now, Kim Jong Il desperately needs Beijing’s oil, aid and cash to reinforce his isolated government.

But despite the regime’s desperation for hard currency, Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, says that opening up the economy even more would be considered political suicide in Pyongyang.

“So what the North Koreans seem to be trying to achieve is economic integration with China, but essentially on the North Korean government’s terms," says Noland. "This integration is to be run through government-controlled entities where the state will play a central role in determining the nature, pace and scale of these developments.”

North Korea is taking the same approach to its unsanctioned markets.

After a deadly famine nearly crumbled the Pyongyang government in the 1990s, unregulated markets and informal cross-border trade with China met North Koreans’ needs where the state failed. But the markets also threaten the regime.

Ambassador Everard says it is not the freely traded illegal goods the authorities are concerned about. It is the ideas.

“Constant gossip. You walk into a North Korean market and everyone is chattering," he says. "Now, clearly some of those conversations will be about the price of apples. But if you put lots of North Koreans together in an environment where they can talk pretty freely, they are going to serve as foci for information exchange, gossip exchange and exchange of opinions on what’s going on, which is just the kind of thing the regime doesn’t want.”

North Korea has since cracked down on the informal markets. That tension between North Korea’s drive to survive on its own terms, and its drive to survive at all, is what defines its relationship with China.

But as Pyongyang careens from one crisis to the next, Everard says a debate is growing in Beijing between those who want to support a fellow socialist state at all costs, and critics who consider North Korea more trouble than it is worth.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

1855 Slave Brochure Starkly Details Sale of Black Americans

Document lists entire families that were up for sale in New Orleans, offering graphic insight into the slavery trade More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs