By Troy Stangarone
After December’s satellite launch, February’s nuclear test, and months of talk of war, is North Korea finally beginning to turn the corner in the first full scale crisis under Kim Jong-un?
As was previously documented on The Peninsula, despite the increasingly provocative rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang in recent months, there was a shift in the rhetorical use of dialogue in April to higher levels than had been previously seen under Kim Jong-un, despite the regime’s refusal to accept U.S. and South Korean offers of talks. In the last week, a senior Japanese official made a surprise visit to North Korea that has the Japanese government considering the resumption of talks with Pyongyang on the abduction of Japanese citizens.
Now, after the first high level contact between North Korea and China in six months, North Korea has indicated that it is willing to take China’s advice and engage in talks. Choe Ryong-hae, one of North Korea’s most senior military officers, said on Chinese State TV that “North Korea lauds China’s enormous efforts to maintain peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and push for a return to talks and consultations for the problems of the Korean peninsula, and is willing to accept China’s suggestion to have talks with all parties.”
While a continued move away from provocations and towards talks would be welcome by all the parties involved, the real question is whether this is a sign that North Korea is willing to engage again in discussions on its nuclear programs or merely a tactical step designed to reduce pressure on the regime and repair frayed ties with China?
In a subsequent meeting with Xi Jinping, Choe indicated that North Korea would take positive steps to maintain peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, but did not specify the steps North Korea was willing to take. However, recent actions by Pyongyang raise concerns that this is potentially a tactical step rather than a meaningful step towards substantive talks.
In recent months, North Korea’s relationship with China has become strained as the new leadership in Pyongyang raised tensions across the region. The recent visit by Choe was the first high level contact between Pyongyang and Beijing in half a year. In contrast to China’s warm initial embrace of Park Geun-hye, who is expected to visit Beijing in June, Kim Jong-un has yet to receive a summit invitation from China.
Instead, while it is too soon to say that China has decided that it will change its policy towards North Korea, there are clear signs that Beijing has grown weary of North Korea’s actions. There has been increasing debate on how best to approach North Korea in semi-official publications such as the Global Times, while Beijing has taken increasingly concrete measures to demonstrate its displeasure with Pyongyang.
Beyond its co-sponsorship of the recent UN sanctions resolution against North Korea, China has begun taking firmer measures against North Korea in its banking system. First, Chinese financial regulators warned North Korean banks to remain within their remit within the Chinese banking system and to avoid practices which have allowed them to avoid fees and obtain preferred exchange rates. This has been followed by the Bank of China and there other major Chinese commercial banks halting money transfers with the state run North Korean Foreign Trade Bank after the United States accused it of helping to finance Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs.
In the case of Japan, the prospective talks with North Korea regarding the abduction issue hold both promise and peril. If North Korea were to take meaningful efforts to resolve the issue, Japan would be better placed to play a role in a revived Six Party Talks. However, because of the secretive nature of the initial overture and North Korea’s leak of the visit, concerns have been raised in South Korea and the United States that if not properly handled Japan’s efforts could be used by North Korea to divide the United States, South Korea, and Japan on policy towards Pyongyang.
This tactic is playing out more explicitly in South Korea. Since the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the South Korean government has called for talks with North Korea to restart operations and retrieve finished goods and materials. North Korea has rejected these talks. However, North Korea has instead chosen to reach out directly to the companies in an effort to divide them from the South Korean government.
Beyond North Korea’s recent actions, the record for talks under Kim Jong-un is not positive. Shortly after coming to power, North Korea reached what became known as the “Leap Day Agreement” with the United States. The agreement called for Pyongyang to maintain a freeze on nuclear tests, long range missile launches, and nuclear enrichment activities, while the United States would provide food aid. That deal fell apart within weeks as Pyongyang followed through on a satellite launch despite having just agreed not to conduct long range missile tests.
Pyongyang’s second attempt at restarting talks with one of the Six Party Talks members quickly faded as well, if not as dramatically. North Korea and Japan held talks last fall prior to the December satellite test on the remains of Japanese soldiers, but ultimately nothing came of those talks.
While it would be premature to say that North Korea will not at some point seek to engage in meaningful discussions regarding its nuclear program, other factors indicate that the current moves may be more tactical. Given the deterioration in relations with China, North Korea needed to take steps to improve relations with its sole international patron. At the same time, it’s handling of the current crisis with South Korea and prospective talks with Japan suggest that it may not yet be ready for full fledged talks on its nuclear programs, but rather seeking a way to gain time and an advantage in any discussions.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from SomewhereRoundTheMiddle’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.