North Korean outreach to Southeast Asia part of regional balancing act
Foreign minister's tour of Southeast Asia seen as attempt to reduce reliance on Beijing, which shows signs of falling out with Pyongyang
Just as North Korea was making headlines by firing five missiles ahead of Pope Francis' visit to the South, the hermit state's foreign minister was quietly reaching out to friends in Southeast Asia.
Over the past week, Ri Su-yong made stops in Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia and Singapore and made a debut appearance at an Asean forum.
The whirlwind tour, analysts said, was the latest effort by North Korea to relax the country's international isolation and reduce reliance on its biggest ally, China.
"North Korea faces the same dilemma every Asian country does, which is: How do you manage China's rise?" said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.
China has long been an important ally and source of humanitarian aid and investment. But bilateral ties appear to have become strained, especially after Pyongyang's third nuclear test in February 2013.
Beijing's wariness grew with the execution of Jang Song-thaek, who was North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's uncle and a key intermediary between the two neighbours, in December.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has been slightly more forceful in complying with United Nations sanctions and in deterring North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Last month, Xi bucked long tradition by visiting Seoul before Pyongyang.
"China is an opportunity but it's also a threat. And North Korea is coming out of a period where they were uncomfortably overdependent on Beijing for everything," Delury said.
Ri's attendance at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum would provide the opportunity to gather information and analysis on how other smaller countries in the region were counterbalancing China, said Adam Cathart, a lecturer from Leeds University.
While in Southeast Asia, Ri reportedly discussed economic and military cooperation with his counterparts. Beyond the region, analysts also noted increasing efforts to bolster ties with Japan and Russia.
Ri informally met Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida at the forum to discuss the abduction of Japanese citizens between the 1970s and 1980s.
North Korea and Japan have made some headway in addressing the issue, which has long been a source of anger in Tokyo.
The progress prompted Japan to ease several of its sanctions on North Korea in July. But cosying up to Japan would likely agitate Beijing, which saw Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as its number one enemy, Cathart said. This would also cause concern in Washington, an important ally for Tokyo, he added.
"But it's a convenient counterbalance," Cathart said.
For Kim, this could help him consolidate power and distinguish himself from his father's policies. For Abe, Cathart said, this could make him a friend in a region where he is disliked by many nations, and make him appear more independent from the US at home.
While North Korea improving its relationship with Japan could bring political and economic benefits for both countries, analysts said China's influence would still be hard to shake off.
"There is a lot of similarity between these two [China and North Korea]. In some ways it helps the relationship to come back to a firm foundation," Cathart said.
This could allow the two ideological allies to learn how to "work together better even though we don't like each other".