North Korea Doesn't Seem to Care About its International Relations

A commentary by Andrei Lankov
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Kim Jong Un inspects an anti-aircraft artillery academy in undated photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on June 13, 2015.
Kim Jong Un inspects an anti-aircraft artillery academy in undated photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on June 13, 2015.

If one looks at recent trends in North Korean foreign policy, it is becoming increasingly clear that the North Korean government is not all that interested in improving its relations with the outside world. As a matter of fact, the Pyongyang leadership seems to be rather indifferent even to attracting overseas assistance and aid. It is somewhat surprising, since until recently, the North Korean diplomacy has been largely dedicated to the task of maximizing foreign aid.

North Korea’s relations with its southern neighbor are effectively in a state of limbo. The North Korean media has attacked President Park Geun-hye with a level of rudeness unusual even by their remarkable standards. If previous experience is any guide, it appears that the North has little intention of talking to her, since they usually do not abuse directly people they plan to deal with in the immediate future.

Relations with the United States are similarly in a state of paralysis as well. The North Korean politicians are in good company: the Obama administration is not all that interested in talking to Pyongyang either, so the feeling appears to be mutual.

Relations with China are as bad as they have ever been in the last 20-odd years. While China remains North Korea’s major supplier of aid, as well as its main trade partner, the North Korean side has taken a number of deliberate steps that have offended China and kept it at a distance. Very recently, one has to admit, North Korea has demonstrated some interest in improving relations with China. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether these half-hearted attempts will produce any results.

The last two years have been marked by unusually vocal diplomatic overtures to Russia. It seems that the North Korean side wishes to attract Russian trade and investment as a potential substitute for Chinese money. It is highly unlikely though that they will succeed. Russia has neither the desire, nor the ability, to subsidize North Korea on the scale that Pyongyang would consider sufficient.

Therefore, with the notable exception of relations with Russia, North Korea is clearly behaving in a rather unusual way. It has not really been shopping for aid much in recent years, but instead has tried to assert its independence and emphasize its unwillingness to make concessions to nearly all real or potential diplomatic partners.

Improved economic situation

What are the reasons for this change of attitude? To some extent, it might reflect the personal style of the new, young leader. However, to a much greater extent, this change of line might be connected with the recent improvement in North Korea’s economic situation.

Indeed, nowadays North Korea is doing significantly better than at any time since the collapse of the communist bloc in the early 1990s. Especially important has been improvements in agriculture resulting from the partial switch to the household responsibility system and move away from the grossly inefficient, state-managed cooperatives. In 2013-14, North Korea’s harvests were nearly sufficient to feed the population. Now, in spite of the widely reported drought, there are no signs of an impending food crisis.

Outside agriculture, industry is also improving as well, albeit much more slowly. Inside Pyongyang and some major North Korean cities, one can see even signs of a modest consumer boom. TV sets, washing machines and refrigerators, once affordable only for a tiny minority, can now be purchased by many more, while in the countryside, the food situation has improved dramatically.

This improvement in economic fortunes may be fragile and could be short-lived, but it may have led North Korean leaders to believe that for the time being, they do not need to squeeze more aid from the outside world. However, if they do not need aid, they are likely to take a more isolationist stance, since interactions with the outside world are often seen as politically dangerous.

Thus, it is not surprising that North Korean leaders have indicated their unwillingness to deal with neighboring countries whose influence on their own population they have reason to fear. Only time will tell how long they will be able to continue this policy.

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