North Korea to reduce China reliance

China and North Korea say their relationship is as close as “lips and teeth.” The analogy is discomfiting in Seoul given current trends in bilateral trade, with some concerned that Beijing will simply swallow up its neighbor.
The dependence doesn’t sit well in Pyongyang, analysts say. They predict that the situation will push the North to engage the next South Korean administration and other regional players.

“From an economic and strategic logic standpoint, North Korea would not want this situation to go on forever,” said John Delury, assistant professor of International Studies at Yonsei University. “It wants to have a serious economic relationship with at least South Korea, Russia and China.”

Other countries will be playing catch-up because Sino-North trade amounted to 5.63 billion in 2011, up 62.4 percent from a year earlier, according to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency. That accounts for 89.1 percent of Pyongyang’s foreign trade excluding that with Seoul.

After increasing steadily over the previous two liberal administrations, inter-Korean trade dipped last year to $1.7 billion. This is less than a third of Sino-North trade, after the figures were roughly equal in 2008.

How to manage the balancing act is the pressing question for new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who, while prioritizing economic development has maintained a harsh attitude toward Seoul.

While the Lee Myung-bak administration squeezed Pyongyang over its nuclear program, China has invested in infrastructure to secure access to the North’s $6 trillion reserves of natural resources such as coal and iron ore as well as to its ports. Last month, a senior North Korean official signed deals to accelerate joint development of special economic zones.

The efforts are thought to be part of China’s strategy to prop up the North as a buffer zone against the U.S. presence in the South while revitalizing provincial economies along the border.

“China is the only country which has both reasons and means to intervene in North Korean domestic politics,” Kookmin University professor Andrei Lankov said. In regards to the dependence, “North Koreans are not enthusiastic.”

But despite a “blood alliance” forged during the 1950-53 Korean War, Pyongyang may be wary of China’s demand that it follow its path, prioritizing party politics and pursuing reform — moves that could deal a blow against the Kim family’s iron-fisted rule.

China has claimed that the Korean kingdom of Koguryo was historically Chinese, raising ire on the peninsula.

Pyongyang has sought to leverage other countries such as Russia, with which it has traditional ties, against Chinese influence and used “crisis diplomacy” to extract aid from regional players.

Fatigue with Lee’s policy among South Koreans has pushed Park Geun-hye, the ruling Saenuri Party’s presidential candidate, to seek a “balanced” approach of deterrence and engagement towards Pyongyang. Liberals pledge to bring back fulsome cooperation.

Park Young-ho, an analyst with the Korea Institute of National Unification, warned that the North would carefully pace any interactions.

“The incoming administration may present a new opportunity for North Korea. But the North is likely to take a tough posture because it does not want to undermine its bargaining position,” he said.

Delury said recalibration would not necessarily downgrade cooperation with China.

“When you have two bids on a contract, it’s just a better place to be in. They want to keep China going, but they want to balance that
with other partners,” he said. <The Korea Times/Kim Young-jin>

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