North Korea looks to Southeast Asia for help
By Kim Young-jin
North Korea is turning to Southeast Asia to bolster its moribund economy and ease growing isolation, analysts said Monday. It remains to be seen, however, whether the traditional ties will pay dividends.
Pyongyang this week continues a spate of high-level contact with the region as Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong visits the Stalinist state to address security issues and bolster bilateral ties.
The visit comes after Kim Yong-nam, president of the Presidium of North Korea's parliament, earlier this month visited Singapore and Indonesia in a bid to drum up foreign direct investment. Kim was also seen to be rounding up support for the regime under the fledgling leadership of Kim Jong-un.
Pyongyang’s isolation has grown after being hit with expanded sanctions for its April 13 rocket launch that was condemned by the U.N. Security Council.
“The regime needs friends and so Kim Jong-un is showing flexibility to the outside,” said Bahng Tae-seop, an analyst with the Samsung Economic Research Institute. “Therefore it is paying attention to a region where it has traditional ties.”
Some say the North could also be looking for alternate sources of diplomacy after the rocket launch shattered hopes of a warming of ties with Washington and Seoul.
It has been speculated that Cambodia, which will host this year’s ASEAN Regional Forum in July, could attempt to help resume the six-party talks on Pyongyang’s denuclearization, which involved the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and China.
Pyongyang, which backed out of the talks in 2009 in response to sanctions for its nuclear and missile tests, is seen as under heavy pressure to stand down from a possible nuclear test and return to negotiations, especially from its main ally China.
Despite having sanctions levied for its nuclear weapons program, Pyongyang has been eager in recent years to increase trade and attract foreign direct investment.
Watchers say the North may be interested in learning from Singapore how to attract foreign direct investment and manage its special economic zones in Rason and Hwanggumphyong. It may have sought to learn from Indonesia’s management of natural resources, they say.
Analysts think increased engagement with such countries could help allay fears of over-reliance on China, by far its biggest economic partner and its diplomatic protector.
Still, significant developments in relations with Southeast Asia remain tricky, said Bahng, noting that Singaporean banks stopped doing business with the North years ago. Its ties with Myanmar, a traditional ally, are also in limbo as the country undergoes democratization.
Bahng believed the rocket launch ― and the swift international response ― may have helped Kim consolidate support and that Pyongyang could now seek to engage the outside more. Watchers are keen to see whether the new leader visits China in the coming months.
The North, Singapore, Cambodia and Indonesia have all been associated with the Non-Aligned Movement. Late North Korean country founder Kim Il-sung was close with former Cambodian monarch King Norodom Sihanouk.