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Economic Security and U.S.-China Competition: The View from North Korea
Region: Asia
Published January 3, 2024
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This paper argues that while North Korea does not discuss “economic security” in domestic contexts or have an established definition of the term, it thoroughly understands that the economy and national security are inseparable. North Korea is essentially unaffected by the typical economic issues that many major economies are grappling with in relation to economic security, but like other countries, it has closely tracked economic security developments and deepening U.S.-China strategic competition for potential political fallout and what opportunities and challenges that may generate. The paper shows that U.S.-China strategic competition has offered unique opportunities to North Korea, including China’s cover against fresh and existing sanctions against North Korea, and economic assistance. Moreover, deteriorating U.S.-China ties provide Pyongyang extra space to consider and put into motion alternative foreign and economic policy paths, namely, shifting away from its three-decade policy of nonalignment with China and normalization of relations with the United States. Also, China appears to be a factor in North Korea’s shift to a more conservative economic policy. Despite the opportunities presented by the U.S.-China divide, however, North Korea is wary of the risks of dependence on China and has tried to build economic resilience at home, for example by launching a national campaign on domestic production and recycling. North Korea’s somewhat cooler handling of China and its proportionately warm treatment of Russia since the Armistice Day celebrations in July is a clear example of North Korea’s China dilemma. This is where North Korea’s recent strengthening of ties with Russia comes into the picture. The paper contends that it is hard to conclude at this point whether North Korea’s moves are aimed at short-term, tactical gains or are part of a longer-term, strategic calculus, but we can be certain of this: it has just as much to gain or lose as any other country affected by economic security and U.S.-China strategic competition, though not in the same ways as other countries.

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