Just in time for the 68th Liberation Day celebrations, North and South shook hands on Wednesday, agreeing to end a 133-day suspension of the joint Gaeseong Industrial Complex.
The North’s promise of unfettered business operations at the Gaeseong complex indirectly acknowledged its responsibility for the park’s initial closure, according to sources. But whether this landmark compromise means the coming of a North Korea that is more trustworthy and open to economic development remains unclear, despite hopeful reports.
Hints that Pyongyang’s ruling elites were vying for more butter and fewer guns rose sporadically in the months prior to the Gaeseong deal.
On Saturday, Kim Jong-un visited for the first time since May a ski resort under construction at the Masik mountain pass, located near the highway linking Pyongyang and Wonsan. North Korean officials claimed that the resort could raise up to $62.5 million annually by inviting more foreign tourists and holding international competitions, although external analysts downplayed the numbers, saying they were exaggerated.
Reports of a behind-the-scenes meeting between North Korean officials and American academics including Joel Wit, a former U.S. State Department official, at Geneva earlier this month; the wide use of foreign currency such as U.S. dollars and Chinese Yuan within North Korea; and the release of an indigenous smartphone called the “Arirang” reinforced the notion that the North was hungry for foreign investment and eager to open up.
|Kim Jong-un (center) visits the North’s ski resort under construction at the Masik mountain pass for the first time in 80 days. North Korea’s newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported Sunday that Kim was “content” with the progress. (Yonhap News)|
“Market socialism is the key word for Kim Jong-un. His grandfather’s ruling system was that of industrial socialism, whereas his father’s was military socialism. Kim Jong-un is a guy that is trying to bring more money into his country,” said An Chan-il, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Chung-Ang University, in an interview with The Korea Herald.
South Korea took advantage of the North’s peace gestures, with President Park Geun-hye proposing on Thursday reunions for separated families and a potential peace park in the demilitarized zone.
But some observers insist there has been no sign of fundamental change in North Korea’s external policies.
“The North is not being swayed by external pressure. I predict that the North has a very detailed playbook that it is following to get what it’s after,” said Choi Gang, the deputy chief of the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies in an email response to The Korea Herald.
The “fundamental strategic dynamics of the Korean Peninsula, in which North Korea is able to successfully bring tensions to the brink of crisis secure in the belief that, ultimately, Seoul is more risk averse than Pyongyang and is less willing to accept significant physical or economic damage” remains unchanged, said Ken E. Gause of the U.S. government-sponsored think tank CNA Strategic Studies Division, in a July 2013 paper. Before the North pursues any meaningful economic reforms, it wants to gain a true nuclear deterrent against the United States, he added.
“This of course, will require additional nuclear (and missile) tests to ensure the future deterrent.”
A U.S. institute announced North Korea now had capabilities to build four nuclear bombs per year according to satellite images on Aug. 7, while U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs General Martin E. Dempsey had already said in May that the North’s neighbors were “no longer in a period of cyclical provocations” but “a period of prolonged provocations.”
North Korea has a history in recent decades of initiating hopes for a new era of peace and economic reform, before scrapping agreements through military provocations or nuclear tests. In February 2012, North Korea and the United States acceded to what is now known as the “Leap Day” agreement in which the North would suspend its missile testing and nuclear program while the United States would give food aid. The deal raised hopes among Korea experts not least because the Swiss-educated, young, new leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un seemed to stand for a more open and improved North Korea. His wife, Ri Sol-ju, further empowered this image by wearing dresses from the latest cosmopolitan fashion brands.
Only two months later in April 2012, the North fired a rocket into nearby seas, effectively nullifying the deal, and any hope that the new leader was going to usher in a new era.
The following December 2012 rocket launch, the February 2013 nuclear test, and the charged threats of a nuclear war against the South and the United States in April did nothing to upend the mood.
Even China backed away from its traditional ally with its endorsement of UN sanctions and snubbing of North Korean envoys to Beijing earlier this year. According to diplomatic sources in Seoul, Beijing’s trade with Pyongyang decreased by six percent in the first half of 2013 as compared to the same period in 2012 ― from $3.14 billion to $2.95 billion. The Bank of China had already severed deals with North Korea’s Foreign Trade bank in May, signaling China’s stronger commitment to UN sanctions against the North Korean nuclear program.
Perhaps there remains hope in the unforeseeable future, however.
“The North already knows war is not an option” said An. “They understand they cannot win a conventional, protracted war against the combined forces of the South and the United States.”
What they do know is that whatever lies ahead, they need money, he added.
By Jeong Hunny (email@example.com