North Korea is seemingly being wooed by two great powers, but in reality is caught in the middle. Between a social-media savvy President Trump manoeuvring his presidential re-election campaign 2020, and the expiry of the North Korea-China Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance (1961) in 2021, a lot can happen.
If not the very eventful days of 2019, then the summer of 2019 was a spate of dramatic developments. Elections in India (South Asia) and Hong Kong’s turmoil aside (East Asia), Northeast Asia witnessed several critical developments, including North Korea’s recent second weapons test in a week, testing short-range missiles from its eastern shores, around Wonsan, into the Sea of Japan. This also included the much-talked about flying visit to North Korea by US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. North Korea is seemingly being wooed by two great powers, but in reality is caught in the middle, between the two. As the last frontier of the Cold War, the US and China portend different scenarios for North Korea’s 25 million people—a toss between economic assurance and security from China, or economic benefit and security umbrella from the US. Either way, North Korea sits precariously—stuck between an unfortunate past and competing visions of a new future.
One of the key developments in Northeast Asia was the brief but symbolic and significant visit by the US President to North Korea in June. President Trump made history as the first sitting US President to cross the demarcation line into North Korea—an obvious outcome and success of back-room diplomacy, but unconventionally articulated through President Trump’s tweet: “…if Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!”
This materialised as the third meet between the leaders since Singapore (June 2018) and Hanoi (February 2019). The visit “…a great day for the world,” as President Trump said, marked a break with the old US approach of ‘maximum pressure’. It is apparent that President Trump has made (nuclear) diplomacy with North Korea his pet “signature foreign policy project.”
But no less significant was President Xi Jinping’s visit to North Korea days earlier, where he was greeted by cherubic children singing a song laden that meant: ‘I love you, China’. President Xi became the first Chinese President in 14 years (Hu Jintao visited in 2005) to visit North Korea. This was the fifth meet between the leaders since March 2018.
On one hand, Chairman Kim Jong-un spoke of China-North Korea bilateral relations going strength to strength against the backdrop of ‘serious’ and ‘complicated’ international affairs—a backhanded reference to the ongoing US-China trade war. Chairman Kim called friendship with China ‘invincible’ and ‘unchanging’. On the other hand, Kim lauded the ‘excellent relationship’ with the US, articulating the need to “eliminate the unfortunate past and open a new future.” Even the reticent North Korean media, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), called President Trump’s visit “an amazing event.”
To the observers, perhaps in the US, North Korea continues to confound. In reality, television bytes of diplomatic overtures aside, North Korea continues to languish under ‘maximum pressure’—the weight of international sanctions, economic contraction, falling harvest and food shortages. Yet there has been little let-up in North Korea’s military ambitions because of its own hybrid political Darwinism, where it must nurture military ambitions (nuclear deterrence) to survive between the great powers and in Northeast Asia—what observers call “siege mentality.”
The Bank of Korea (Seoul) indicates that the North Korean economy shrank 4.1% in 2018, the worst since 1997. This was the second consecutive year of decline, following a 3.5% decline in 2017. International trade fell to an all-time low in 30 years, falling 48.4% in value in 2018. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has estimated food crop production at 4.9 million metric tonnes (2018-19), the worst in 10 years, with a deficit of 1.36 million metric tonnes. An estimated 10 million people are expected to face food shortages. The International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) has already warned of the rising incidence of malnutrition.
While North Korea did not reap immediate economic dividends from President Trump’s visit, President Xi’s visit has led to China’s renewed support for the stalled Hwanggumpyong Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and investment for road/bridge connection into North Korea for speedy completion of the New Yalu River Bridge that connects China (Dandong) and North Korea (Sinuiju) over the Yalu river. Going forward, China’s gradual transition from socialism to “socialism with Chinese characteristics” beginning with SEZs may be a viable role model for North Korea.
But even China, North Korea’s sole economic lifeline, finds it hard to predict the latter’s flip-flops. President Xi’s visit, it was believed, not only honed the importance of a political settlement, but also sought to secure denuclearisation commitments. That China wants to play the critical arbiter in the peninsula goes unsaid. But President Trump’s direct ‘one-on-one’ channel with Chairman Kim marginalises China in the endgame.
Just weeks after the landmark visits concluded, North Korea tested the short-range missiles and reports emerged that it has built a new submarine. The US has downplayed this, responding that they did not posit a threat to the US or its allies, and that they fell into the sea.
What is obscured is that the continued militarisation of the peninsula is North Korea’s nightmare, as it is for other stakeholders. Seen from a North Korean perspective, the immediate provocation is the slated joint military exercise between the US and South Korea, which North Korea has called as much as a “rehearsal of war.” North Korea views this development as retracting and reneging on the commitment given by President Trump in Singapore to stop military exercises with South Korea—which is also in the process of acquiring F-35s from the US, to bring the tally up of F-35s to 40 by 2021.
Despite these historic visits, on ground real progress is lackadaisical. US-North Korea are scheduled to have working-level talks. For the US, there is little doubt that President Trump has invested diplomacy in North Korea—the thaw in North Korea very likely one of his biggest political triumphs. Tellingly, President Trump has said that he is “not looking for speed (but) looking to get it right.” For President Xi, too, the trip is pregnant with promise.
Where does North Korea go, standing between two competing visions of economic rise? Between a social-media savvy President Trump manoeuvring his presidential re-election campaign 2020, and the expiry of the North Korea-China Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance (1961) in 2021, a lot can happen.
For North Korea, stakes are high as President Trump has opened a window of opportunity, a political risk that no other US President has done or will ever take. North Korea will have to find a way to ‘keep face’ with minimum deterrence (so as not to become Libya) and have US successfully claim (almost) denuclearisation, so that sanctions are lifted and even better, Japan opens its cash tabs.
(The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist, and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. Views are personal)