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North Korea breaks out of diplomatic isolation and scores a win

Ahn Jong Sik, SBS North Korea Specialist and Political Department Deputy Head  |  2018-04-09 15:24
Following North Korean leader Kim Jong Uns visit to China last month, the regimes public attitude towards China has changed dramatically. State media outlets - including Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and the party-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper - continue to devote coverage to the reception that Chinese President Xi Jinping gave to Kim, nearly two weeks after the visit. KCNA has combined the coverage with historical footage of Kim Il Sung meeting with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, which had not been aired in years. 

In response, it appears that China is loosening its approach to implementing United Nations Security Council sanctions resolutions against the North. Daily NK and other media outlets have reported that from the beginning of April, the Chinese region of Helong was host to a fresh infusion of 400 female workers from North Korea. There are also indications that previously-suspended Sino-NK joint operations are making moves towards restarting business in the border areas.   

Breaking out of diplomatic isolation 

Last year, North Korea was severely isolated in the international community due to its nuclear weapons and missile development. Entering 2018, however, Pyongyang has dramatically changed its status after seizing on the opportunity of the PyeongChang Olympics in South Korea. North-South relations have warmed, and a special South Korean delegation travelled to Pyongyang and managed to help set up a US-North Korea high level summit. Through an unexpected China-North Korea visit, Kim has also evidently moved Sino-NK relations towards a friendlier disposition.      

It was China that accepted North Koreas request to visit, but the event should nonetheless be seen as a significant North Korean achievement. Two high level summits have subsequently been proposed, and there has even been a mention of a trilateral US-SK-NK summit. This may have symbolically isolated China, putting the impetus on Beijing to avoid exclusion from the process.  

It remains difficult to determine whether North Koreas calculations have been met, those being made at the time when it began to improve relations with the South during the PyeongChang Olympics in early 2018. But Pyongyangs management of relations with South Korea, the US, and China has been skillful. Using a strong understanding of its position and geopolitical significance in Northeast Asia, Pyongyang has maximized its leverage by breaking out of diplomatic isolation.     

As the US and China become more deeply mired in a potentially hostile trade spat with tit-for-tat tariff exchanges threatening to escalate, North Korea is finding its position improving rapidly. As relations with the US continue to worsen, China may embrace North Korea as a route to improving its geopolitical leverage. North Koreas embrace of China is explained by the political and economic benefits it extracts from the relationship. As relations improve, there would also be further gains if North Korea succeeds in warming ties with Russia.

North Koreas accurate reading of regional dynamics

The problem, from Pyongyangs perspective, is that this type of restoration of relations leads the momentum towards denuclearization. Now that relations with China have been restored, North Korea is no longer as strongly motivated to engage in denuclearization negotiations with the US. Although China is also calling for North Korea to denuclearize, the intensifying competition between China and the US is becoming a more important priority for Beijing. North Korea appears to have understood this.   

Another card that North Korea could play is to admit an inspection team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to view the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Even if no other steps towards denuclearization are taken, China would openly support the gesture as "progress."  

It was moving to see the North and Souths artistic delegations perform in each others respective homelands. After 70 years since division, the scenes were a touching reminder of the shared ancestry and heritage between the two countries.  

However, much remains uncertain and it needs to be confirmed whether North Korea has the will to denuclearize. What is clear at this point is that the previously isolated nation has managed to improve its strategic position markedly through diplomatic outreach. 

*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

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