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
TEXT SIZE - +

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

Analysts Warn of Regional Proxy Conflict in Afghanistan

Analysts warn if Kabul’s neighbors do not start to cooperate, competing desires for influence could deteriorate into a bloody proxy war in the country More

Saudi Intelligence Chief Replaced

Bandar bin Sultan came under criticism for supporting al Qaida, prompting King Abdallah to wrest Syria operations away from him in February, handing them to Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef More

Poetry Magazine editor Don Share talks what makes a good poem with VOA's David Byrd

What makes a good poem? And is poetry as viable an art form as it once was? To find out, VOA's David Byrd spoke to Don Share, the editor of Poetry Magazine. 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.
Google Buys Drone Companyi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X
George Putic
April 15, 2014
In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ray Bonneville Sings the Blues and More on New CD

Singer/songwriter Ray Bonneville has released a new CD called “Easy Gone” with music that reflects his musical and personal journey from French-speaking Canada to his current home in Austin,Texas. The eclectic artist’s fan base extends from Texas to various parts of North America and Europe. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin.
Video

Video Millions Labor in Pakistan's Informal Economy

The World Bank says that in Pakistan, roughly 70 percent work in the so-called informal sector, a part of the economy that is unregulated and untaxed. VOA's Sharon Behn reports from Islamabad on how the informal sector impact's the Pakistani economy.
Video

Video Passover Celebrates Liberation from Bondage

Jewish people around the world are celebrating Passover, a commemoration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. According to scripture, God helped the Jews, led by Moses, escape bondage in Egypt and cross the Red Sea into the desert. Zlatica Hoke reports that the story of the Jewish Exodus resonates with other people trying to escape slave-like conditions.
Video

Video Police Pursue Hate Crime Charges Against Kansas Shooting Suspect

Prosecutors are sifting through the evidence in the wake of Sunday’s shootings in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri that left three people dead. A suspect in the shootings taken into custody is a white supremacist. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, he was well-known to law enforcement agencies and human rights groups alike.
Video

Video In Eastern Ukraine, Pro-unity Activists Emerge from Shadows

Amid the pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, there is a large body of activists who support Ukrainian unity and reject Russian intervention. Their activities have remained largely underground, but they are preparing to take on their pro-Moscow opponents, as Henry Ridgwell reports from the eastern city of Donetsk.
Video

Video Basket Maker’s Skills Have World Reach

A prestigious craft show in the U.S. capital offers one-of-a-kind creations by more than 120 artists working in a variety of media. As VOA’s Julie Taboh reports from Washington, one artist lucky enough to be selected says sharing her skills with women overseas is just as significant.
Video

Video UN Report Urges Speedier Action to Avoid Climate Disaster

A new United Nations report says the world must switch from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources to control the effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the report (Sunday) following a meeting of scientists and government representatives in Berlin. The comprehensive review follows two recent IPCC reports that detail the certainty of climate change, its impacts and in this most recent report what to do about it. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble has the details.
AppleAndroid