There is a glimmer of expectation that the ‘Hermit Kingdom’, as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is known, is contemplating steps to initiate contact with the outside world. Though these will initially be subject to strict controls, they do signal a major departure from decades-long practice. Tucked away in north-east Asia, North Korea, which has thus far kept itself severely insulated from the rest of the world, has managed to keep global attention focused on the Korean Peninsula and the US engaged in talks because of its nuclear programme.
The decision to permit a US-headquartered international news agency, the Associated Press (AP), to open a bureau in Pyongyang this January, barely a month after North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s death, is a major step. It followed the exchange last year, obviously with US government approval, of at least two delegations between AP and the DPRK’s official news agency, KCNA. Technically this means that AP will upgrade the video outpost it has maintained in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, since 2006 to a two-man bureau manned, at least for the present, by a journalist and photographer who are both North Korean nationals. Senior AP journalists will regularly visit the bureau, which is located in the KCNA’s office premises. Regardless of whether this AP bureau reports domestic news, its presence alone implies that the reclusive North Korean authorities are prepared to risk a degree of relaxation.
Interestingly, while the DPRK permitted mobile phones only in December 2008, North Korea’s solitary 3G mobile telephone network operator had more than 8,00,000 registered subscribers by the end of 2011. Optic fibre cables have also been laid. Strict curbs are imposed on usage, though, and only a few days ago the North Korean authorities warned that people using mobile phones inside the country would be charged as ‘war criminals’. While this news has added to scepticism regarding relaxation of policies, yet there is little doubt that the AP bureau can, in time, be expected to attract people with their stories.
There are other signs that the North Korean authorities are relaxing their stance. These relate to subjects like the resumption of Six-Party Talks on the nuclear issue and talks with Japan on the issue of abductees.
Beijing, which is North Korea’s biggest supporter and source of food, energy and fiscal aid, took steps to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula just three days prior to Kim Jong-il’s unexpected death. It arranged contacts between representatives of the Six-Party Talks. On December 14, 2011, Beijing scheduled a meeting in the Chinese capital between the US special representative on Korean policy, Glyn Davies, China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi and Chinese interlocutors. Li Gun, chief of the American Affairs Bureau of the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also quietly met Glyn Davies in Beijing. During their meeting, North Korea requested the US to resume supplies of food aid. The US is yet to respond. At this same meeting the DPRK had also offered to stop the enrichment of uranium.
South Korea’s nuclear envoy, Lim Sung-nam later visited Beijing on December 23, and met China’s special representative for Korean Peninsula affairs Wu Dawei. Following these meetings, China hoped that these contacts could create favourable conditions for resumption of the Six-Party Talks. China also invited South Korea’s president, who has adopted a tough stance towards North Korea, to Beijing and offered, as incentive, to start negotiations with Seoul for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). During the visit, the president struck a conciliatory note and, despite North Korea’s belligerence and rumours of a likely third nuclear test by Pyongyang in the first half of this year, asserted that South Korea is “leaving a window of opportunity open. If North Korea shows its attitude of sincerity, a new era on the Korean Peninsula can be opened.”
There was forward movement in relations between the DPRK and Japan when, between January 9-11, 2012, a secret contact took place between Hiroshi Nakai, former head of Japanese efforts to settle the abductees issue and the DPRK representative, Song Il Ho. The meeting was most probably brokered by the Chinese.
Beijing’s central concern is to ensure that the transfer of power to Kim Jong-il’s son and successor Kim Jong Un — which has thus far been smooth — does not get derailed, thereby jeopardising Beijing’s influence over Pyongyang.
These developments indicate that decisions taken by Kim Jong-il prior to his death have neither been suspended nor changed by the successor regime. Though there is some lack of clarity whether Kim Jong Un will be able to effectively consolidate power, the transition has proceeded smoothly now for over a month. A few reports emanating from Seoul and Tokyo suggest the possibility of a power struggle, including that Kim Jong Un’s step-brother is unhappy at being ignored, but there is little to indicate that Kim Jong Un’s succession will be seriously challenged. Kim Jong-il’s sister and her husband also continue to back Kim Jong Un.
A relaxation in North Korea’s policies will be a welcome development. Resumed contact and commencement of the Six-Party Talks would mean immediate food supplies to a country which is terribly short of grain and where preparations are underway for lavish celebrations this month for Kim Jong-il’s 70th birth anniversary and in April for Kim Il-sung’s 100th birth anniversary. It would also facilitate capital investments and resumption of tourist revenue. Tension on the Korean Peninsula and between Pyongyang and Japan would ease. Improved relations with the US would allow Pyongyang to expand linkages and be more flexible in the conduct of its foreign policy. It will additionally increase the flow of financial assistance to cash-strapped North Korea. Vietnam, and now potentially Myanmar, are good examples. These developments would undoubtedly help shore Kim Jong Un’s leadership.
For the international community, including India, a major benefit would be that North Korea would be able to address the issue of its debts without indulging in missile or nuclear proliferation. Memories of its involvement in the missiles-for-nuclear technology deal with Pakistan brokered by China are difficult to erase. North Korea will then be able to settle its outstanding debts with the former Soviet Union and Germany. While North Korea would still be unwilling to dismantle its nuclear programme it might, nevertheless, be gradually willing to agree to some internationally approved safeguards.
(Views expressed in the column are the author’s own)
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India