Continuity and change in North Korea-China relations

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The recent appointment of Ri Ryong Nam as North Korea’s ambassador to China hints at ambitions for greater economic exchange with China, as reported here. As Ri has a strong background in institutions in North Korea related to foreign trade, not least as the country’s trade minister and, later, vice premier in the country’s cabinet.

Above all, the appointment of Ri is interesting as a sign of continuity rather than change in North Korea’s external economic relations. At the moment, cross-border trade is in its deepest lull in many, many years, as a result of the North Korean government’s self-imposed border shutdown to protect against Covid-19. This border shutdown came on top of already harsh and heavy sanctions.

But this border shutdown, like other measures around the world related to Covid-19, has an expiration date. There’s been rife speculation that the border may reopen soon. And when it does, business will likely, at some point, return to the old normal of China being North Korea’s only meaningful source of economic exchange. The appointment of Ri is one data point to suggest this, but there are many other data points that show an increasingly close relationship between China and North Korea since 2018, after a lull in the preceding years of frequent North Korean missile tests and other destabilizing action. For example, North Korea and China and started expanding 12 of its 13 road or rail crossings only in 2020, despite the pandemic.

While all this may only amount to business as usual, it is interesting and noteworthy for several reasons. For one, North Korea’s previous five-year economic strategy, launched in 2016 and subsequently abandoned, reportedly sought trade diversification away from China as one of its main objectives. North Korean publications have long lamented overt dependence on one single country for foreign trade, noting that it easily translates to political dependance as well.

At the same time, North Korea’s trade dependence on China has actually increased over the past few years. Xi Jinping has long since promised Kim Jong-un that China would fund cross-border infrastructure refurbishment and special economic zones along the border. For all the talk of the potential for economic exchange between North and South Korea back in the heyday of inter-Korean diplomacy between Moon and Kim, the fact remains that if any party is likely to expand its economic ties and influence in North Korea, it’s China.

So the recent appointment of Ri as ambassador to China should be seen as a sign of continuity, not change. Given the dire state of the economy, and the economic policy retrenchment drive as of late, North Korean policymakers are likely to stay cautious and safe in economic measures for some time to come. That is precisely the sort of move that strengthening ties and trade with China would be.

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