DPRK Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has embarked on his first foreign visit since successfully concluding last week’s Singapore Summit with US President Donald Trump. China’s vital role in the ongoing peace process can not be understated as Beijing continues to support international efforts towards the de-militarisation of the Korean peninsula while also looking forward to boosting economic ties with both Korean states.
While US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that it is US policy not to relax sanctions until de-nuclearisation is complete, due to Pyongyang’s apparent willingness to proceed with de-nuclearisation at a rapid pace, it could very well be the case that the DPRK’s economic opening to the wider world comes sooner rather than later.
During the meeting, President Xi stated,
“No matter the changes in the international and regional situation, China’s ruling party’s and government’s resolute position on being dedicated to consolidating and developing China-DPRK relations will not change.
The Chinese people’s friendship for the DPRK people will not change, and China’s support for socialist DPRK will not change”.
This comes as all three superpowers look to form new economic partnerships with the DPRK as the formerly isolated market emerges as the last east Asian frontier where major developmental potential remains largely untapped. Kim Jong-un is now faced with a reality of being offered major post-sanctions economic incentives from China, Russia and the United States. This is quite an achievement in and of itself, especially when considering that at this time just nine months ago, Donald Trump was threatening the DPRK was destruction, relations with China were at an all time low and Russia too in spite of maintaining healthy diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, joined with Beijing in call for a double-freeze to militarisation on both sides of the 38th parallel. Kim has therefore gone from having a tense relationship with all three superpowers to being at the centre of a scramble to see which of the superpowers can bring the most added economic value to the DPRK’s development.
Moscow has got an early start in respect of cooperation with the DPRK. Russian engineers have already begun early stage construction of a modern highway linking the DPRK with Russia’s Pacific regions. Moreover, it was in September of 2017 at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok when Russian President Putin first proposed a tripartite economic cooperation scheme between the two Korean states and Russia. The prospects from such a scheme to evolve into a Russia to Korea gas pipeline as well as a broader Russia-Korea Transport Corridor remains a highly attractive prospect to Seoul, Pyongyang and Moscow.
China has further indicated that such a Russia-Korea Transport corridor could also include a corridor linking the southern tip of the Korean peninsula to China. According to the Global Times, an influential Chinese newspaper that is associated with Chinese governing party, the DPRK is not only a good candidate for One Belt–One Road, but could be integrated into One Belt–One Road at a far more rapid pace than many had previously thought. Over the last week, officials in Beijing have become increasingly vocal about the potential for a duel-Korean partnership in the context of One Belt–One Road.
The dynamics of the US friendly states of north east Asia are also changing due to both regional and global factors. As the markets of Asia become increasingly hungry for finished industrial goods, South Korea has begun pivoting its target export markets towards Russia, China and ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations). South Korea’s motivation for its export pivot has been accelerated by America’s increasingly protectionist policies under Donald Trump. Notably, Trump’s protectionist policies have if anything been more effective in restraining imports to the US from traditional American allies than they have been at fighting a ‘trade war’ with superpower rival China. This is all the more reason for South Korea to begin a gradual multipolar pivot in respect of its trading partnerships as has already been witnessed by the fact that trade between Seoul and both Beijing and Moscow continues to expand in-line with historically good relationships between America’s South Korean ally and its Cold War rivals.
While Japan has joined China, Russia and South Korea in welcoming the results of the Kim-Trump Singapore Summit, Tokyo under Premier Shinzō Abe remains committed to trading initiatives with China’s rivals including India and Australia. Nevertheless, in spite of Abe’s image as a pro-US conservative figure, he has developed an incredibly warm relationship with Russian President Putin which has also translated into new economic opportunities between Moscow and Tokyo.
Of course, the United States is after economic opportunities in the DPRK as much (if not more so) as anyone and because the DPRK’s location is prohibitive to the kind of ‘occupy and grab the resources’ model that the US has employed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and parts of Syria – the US is clearly going to try and entice the DPRK into a Japanese or South Korean style economic partnership owing to the fact that the coercion model is increasingly impossible for the US to employ anywhere in north east Asia.
Far from betraying the DPRK as the US did to Iran in respect of the JCPOA, it is actually in America’s self-interested strategy to make sure the DPRK becomes economically successful by international standards. Geopolitical expert Andrew Korybko explained why this is the case in the following way:
“The US has more to gain in a grand strategic sense by protecting North Korea and doing good on its pledge to develop it into a “First World” state (taking advantage of its citizens’ low wages, the country’s rare earth mineral wealth, and its location between China and South Korea) than to turn it into a failed state like it did to Libya. China is strong enough to protect itself from a prospective North Korean collapse, which would mostly harm South Korea and possibly even Japan if it led to Pyongyang lobbying a few nuclear missiles at their capitals out of last-minute desperation prior to being destroyed, but China would have a comparatively more difficult time confronting would be the emergence of a credible alternative to OBOR, namely if North Korea was held up as the model of how beneficial it could be it other countries joined the New Washington Consensus. With one-time anti-American Kim as its literal poster boy, the soft power appeal would be tremendous”.
Thus one sees a clear US modus operandi for wanting the DPRK to be successful by joining the shrinking pro-US family of prosperous Asian nations, which has in turned made China all the more eager to advance One Belt–One Road into a DPRK that first reconciled its recently tense relationship with Beijing even prior to its historic rapprochement with the United States. In order words, the DPRK has gone from a regional pariah to a a country that is already rapidly becoming a site of a comparatively friendly competition to see if Pyongyang will attain vast amounts of material wealth through the Chinese model or the US model. As pro-US Japan and US rival China are both incredibly successful nations, as is the pro-US but increasingly multipolar South Korea, the DPRK may well be able to play both sides against the other for its own benefit, much the way that modern non-aligned leaders like Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Turkish President Erdogan have done and how Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is once again doing after returning to power. Kim Jong-un’s self-evidently modern outlook on the DPRK’s future means that Kim could go from a model of isolation to a model of pursuing win-win relationships with the world’s richest nations.
While the United States does not like healthy competition and tends to react with recalcitrance to the very idea of a win-win model, in the DPRK, the United States may have no choice. The DPRK is located beside Russia and China and this will never change. Furthermore, far from the situation in post-Soviet Ukraine which had a latent fascist element in its population that was all too willing to befriend any major power hostile to Russia, the DPRK’s population and its leadership are not only aware of the importance of good relations with its superpower neighbours, but over 2018 Pyongyang has embraced its long standing good relations with Moscow and its newly reinvigorated relations with Beijing. This latter development is essential to a successful peace process and consequently, Pyongyang’s partnership with both China and Russia will only strengthen as the process continues.
At the same time, as the DPRK comes to see South Korea as a fraternal people rather than as an enemy regime, Pyongyang will also likely drop its ideological hostility to the originally US aligned economic model of its wealthy southern ‘comrades’ and in so doing, attempt to adopt the best characteristics of both a prosperity creating South Korean model and a prosperity creating Chinese model.
When all is taken together, circumstance might force the US to adopt a positive tone in selling its model to the DPRK rather than risk alienating Chin, Russia and the DPRK in the process. Of course all of this will require a delicate balancing act from all parties, including the DPRK. But when all is said and done, the US may just be forced to accept that China and Russia will expand their historical partnership with the DPRK in a post-sanctions environment and as a result the US will have to adapt to this unchangable reality by adopting a positive approach to selling the DPRK on US investment. The best conclusion of such a reality is that the DPRK may well become an economic hybrid of the traditionally US aligned South Korean approach and the One Belt–One Road approach developed in China and embraced by Russia. Put another way, the DPRK may become the future capital of a multipolar win-win model that defies expectations from all international perspectives.
Today’s meeting between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping helps to reaffirm China’s commitment to overseeing and in-effect guaranteeing the DPRK’s security concerns in a post-nuclear age. But perhaps more importantly in the long term, Beijing is vying to use historic good will with the DPRK, combined with the internationally attractive prospects of a One Belt–One Road partnership in order to help promote a “think China” economic trajectory in the DPRK. It is likely that China will remain the DPRK’s largest trading partner even in a post-sanctions environment for the very reason that China is the largest trading partner to most of Asia and beyond. But in a post-sanctions environment, China will have healthy competition from Russia and also a form of what passes for healthy competition from the United States.
So long as Kim Jong-un is able to balance the interests of his new found and resurrected international partners, all the while pivoting this triangle of superpowers to the domestic material benefit of the DPRK, Kim Jong-un could be the man to watch when it comes to economic renewal and history making diplomacy for decades to come. With youth and international good will on his side, the DPRK’s economy may soon shoot higher than any rocket.