North Korea’s supreme leader, Mr. Kim Jong Il, is a savvy politician. He knows how to get attention: His “secret” trip to China dominated international news even though there was no official confirmation he was visiting the country. The reclusive leader will need all his skills as he tries to maximize North Korean leverage as pressure mounts to resume the multilateral negotiations over his country’s nuclear-weapons program.
Apparently, there is an agreement between Beijing and Pyongyang not to announce visits by Mr. Kim until he has returned home. While that delayed the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s comments on his trip, it did not silence the speculation over the purpose of his nine-day visit. Stops in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai in southern Guangdong province, the heart of China’s export machine, and Mr. Kim’s praise of their economic progress, suggest that economic reform topped Mr. Kim’s concerns.
Emulating the Chinese example is another matter, however. While North Korea is desperately poor and has experimented with limited economic reform, the process has been fitful at best. Market reforms implemented a few years ago — after another of Mr. Kim’s trips to China — have been rolled back in recent months. It appears as though the country’s political system — and its domination by Mr. Kim and his allies in the military — cannot absorb the inevitable side effects of even limited reforms.
North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programs was the second item on Mr. Kim’s agenda. While the Pyongyang government agreed in the Sept. 19 Joint Declaration issued by the parties to the six-party talks that those negotiations aim to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, North Korea turned its back on those discussions after the United States imposed sanctions on a bank accused of laundering illicit funds for North Korea and on eight companies charged with proliferating weapons of mass destruction components.
Even though the North has insisted that it will not return to the negotiations until the U.S. lifts those sanctions, both the Chinese and North Korean governments announced that Mr. Kim reaffirmed his country’s commitment to a peaceful settlement and a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Meeting Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing, the two leaders promised to work together to “overcome present difficulties” in the negotiations. That pledge was soon tested: Mr. Christopher Hill, U.S. assistant secretary of state and the chief U.S. negotiator at the six-party talks, turned up in Beijing at the same time as Mr. Kim, and reportedly met with his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye Gwan. The two men, however, did not reach agreement to resume the six-party talks.
Economic reform and the nuclear negotiations are part of a bigger mission: shoring up Chinese support for North Korea. Beijing provides the food and energy that keeps the North Korean government in power, but that support is not unconditional. On several occasions, Beijing has made it clear that it too has “red lines” that North Korea must not cross. When Pyongyang declared Sept. 20 that it would not dismantle its nuclear-weapons programs until after it received a light-water reactor, China immediately rejected the idea, saying that was not what the six parties had agreed the day before.
Despite its dependence on foreign support — besides Chinese assistance, South Korean aid and the international community, more generally, have helped the North weather its economic difficulties — North Korea remains a fiercely proud country. Pyongyang will go to considerable lengths to demonstrate its independence. From one perspective, North Korea is ready to bite the hand that feeds it. A Korean nationalist would say Mr. Kim is doing his very best to play a weak hand.
First, there is the struggle between reform and regime survival. China believes economics and politics can be divided; its history is proof of that. But North Koreans are reluctant to believe the Chinese experience is applicable to them. As a result, Pyongyang tacks between liberalization and tighter economic control. Second, Mr. Kim wants to send the message that Pyongyang looks to Beijing for support — economic and moral — without appearing to be a supplicant. This means lining up behind Chinese positions on key issues — or appearing to — while asserting its independence as often as possible.
Most significantly, it means that North Korea will scrutinize every position of its diplomatic partners, looking for room to exploit differences. Therefore, Pyongyang’s key negotiating partners — China, South Korea, the United States and Japan — must identify areas of agreement on key concerns, such as the six-party talks, and ensure that they speak with one voice. It is one thing to indulge Pyongyang’s penchant for secrecy, and quite another to encourage it to flout international norms.
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