North Korea’s highly secretive regime appears to be breaking from its tradition of restricting trade officials from serving more than one tour abroad in China, according to Chinese trade sources.
The reasons cited for the new practice vary but the sources said it could be due to intense lobbying by the serving officials wanting to continue on their plum postings abroad or Pyongyang’s wish to maintain experienced staff in China—its closest political ally and biggest trading partner.
Businessmen in China told RFA’s Korean Service that until recently, the North’s leadership had largely kept to its rule of allowing trade officials to work abroad only once during their tenure as part of an effort to limit exposure to the outside world.
“The [practice of] ‘revolving door personnel allocation’ is prevalent in North Korea,” said one merchant surnamed Li from the city of Dandong in northeastern China’s Liaoning province, which is located on the border between the two countries.
But he said that an increasing number of North Koreans who had just recently returned from assignments in China were being sent to the neighboring country again in an official capacity.
“A North Korean trade representative who had worked in Dandong five years ago returned [to China] as a representative working in Beijing, which was surprising,” Li said, adding that he had never encountered a North Korean official who had served in the country on more than one occasion.
Another Chinese merchant surnamed Wang, who is currently living in North Korea, confirmed that more officials were being sent to China multiple times.
“Recently there are an increasing number of North Korean representatives who have repeatedly been dispatched abroad, although they are working in regions different from those where they had previously been posted,” Wang said.
One source suggested that Pyongyang may be continuing to rely on officials who have already served abroad in order to leverage their existing experience dealing with China’s trade sector.
He said that when the North Korean government requires an urgent trade agreement, it has become more willing to use officials with experience because training new personnel would be too time-intensive.
But another source said that the prompt resolution of trade negotiations is not the regime’s driving motive behind redeploying officials abroad.
“It’s not because the North Korean government needs an urgent resolution to trade matters, but simply because the officials who have previously worked abroad are lobbying so hard to be re-dispatched,” the source said.
Officials who are assigned positions abroad typically have access to living standards well beyond the means of the average citizen of North Korea and to goods that are often unavailable within the country.
Part of the reason foreign assignments are so tightly guarded in North Korea is because officials are likely to be exposed to the reality that life outside of the country is significantly better than what the regime is trying to portray to the public.
Last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who took over after his father Kim Jong Il died in December 2011, had suggested that the regime adopt a new strategy towards selecting trade officials for positions in China.
“[We must] change the trade representatives in China to people who are younger, proficient in using computers and fluent in the Chinese language,” state media quoted the leader as saying.
Kim, believed to be 30 years old and to have been partly educated in Switzerland, has sought to distance himself from his father by reportedly promoting economic reform in an effort to obtain investment for his impoverished country.
Regardless of the real explanation behind why more officials are being re-dispatched to foreign countries, one Chinese source said, the vetting process remains extremely thorough.
Officials who seek reassignment require spotless work records during their previous post abroad and must have excellent connections within the North Korean government before they will be selected, he said.
“This is a new change that started with new leader Kim Jong Un and which needs to be watched keenly.”
Reported by Joon Ho Kim. Translated by Juhyeon Park. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.