North Korea’s reliance on China to grow as ties with Southeast Asian nations unravel
Pyongyang to depend even more on China for financial support, experts say
The assassination in Malaysia of the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has stretched ties between the two nations to the breaking point and left the isolated Stalinist nation with fewer options for financial survival, experts say.
The worsening spat would force Pyongyang to become even more reliant on China for economic support, even as the regime delivers a veiled attack against Beijing for banning coal imports from the North, they said.
The relationship between Malaysia and North Korea rapidly deteriorated on Tuesday, with each side banning the other’s nationals from leaving the country. The tit-for-tat exchange came amid the ongoing investigation into the mysterious death of Kim Jong-nam, allegedly by female assassins using the VX nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur airport last month.
North Korean ambassador Kang Chol, who the Malaysian government declared “persona non grata”, was transiting through Beijing on Tuesday on his way back to Pyongyang.
Regional experts said the shadow cast by the assassination was likely to hang over relations between North Korea and Southeast Asian nations, especially in Vietnam and Indonesia – the nationality of the two women so far charged in the murder.
Dr Hoo Chiew-ping, a specialist in North Korean affairs at National University of Malaysia, said Southeast Asian countries with any sort of special relationship with Pyongyang “should rethink their strategic importance ... especially [with] a North Korea with a volatile leadership under Kim Jong-un”.
Dr Geetha Govindasamy, a East Asian specialist at University of Malaya, said North Korea’s legal or illicit activities in Southeast Asia nations “will be stopped for the time being ... as most ... governments are now more alert than ever of North Korean activities.”
Pyongyang has enjoyed a close relationship with many Southeast Asian nations – North Korean foreign ministers have attended the regional summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations since 2010, offering Pyongyang a rare platform to engage with the international community. In turn, some companies from Southeast Asian countries have been permitted to set up operations in the North.
Although the amount of trade and commerce involved is negligible compared with the level carried out with China, even small economic retaliations are deeply felt by Pyongyang, said Dr Lee Jaehyon, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies think tank in South Korea.
Lee predicted governments in the region would more heavily scrutinise economic ties with the North, possibly even severing them, given the cost of such relationships to their image.
Even before Pyongyang alienated Malaysia, losing a vital link to the outside world, it was coming under increased economic pressure after Beijing stopped importing its coal, one of its main financial lifelines and its largest legitimate source of foreign currency.
But the North is expected to become even more reliant on Beijing if it can’t establish new trading partners, possibly with nations in Africa and South America.
Although Pyongyang does not release economic figures, China is widely believed to account for up to 90 per cent of its overall trade, with coal exports making up 30 per cent to 40 per cent. Last year, North Korea’s coal exports to China totalled US$1.2 billion, according to Chinese customs.
Lu Chao, an expert at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in China, said Pyongyang would have fewer options in maintaining economic relationships, making it more reliant on China. But Pyongyang would also probably try to nurture ties with nations in Africa or South America.
The official Korean Central News Agency last month accused China, without specifically naming it, of “dancing with the US”, but the North has also sent Deputy Foreign Minister Ri Kil-song, at Beijing’s invitation, for talks in the capital.
In his meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi Tuesday last week, Ri said the North was willing to carry out substantial discussions with China on Korean peninsular affairs, according to a brief statement by the ministry.
No other details about Ri’s meetings with senior Chinese officials have been released, but Lu expected economic issues were on the North’s agenda.
Lee said: “For China it would not be easy to respond to North Korea’s cry for economic assistance immediately. For the time being, China will be cold to North Korea.”