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Hub or Backwater? North Korea between Alternative Conceptions of Northeast Asian Regional Economic Cooperation

Hub or Backwater? North Korea between Alternative Conceptions of Northeast Asian Regional Economic Cooperation

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This article seeks to investigate how the various recent conceptions of Northeast Asian regional cooperation have been perceived by the North Korean leadership, how compatible they were with Pyongyang’s non-economic objectives, and how they might influence North Korean actions toward South Korea. Placing the present situation into a historical context, it argues that for the North Korean leaders, regional economic cooperation is less an end in itself than an issue seen through the prism of security policy. That is, such forms of Northeast Asian cooperation that bypass the DPRK or potentially reduce its room for maneuver are likely to elicit unfavorable reactions from Pyongyang. In contrast, the leadership is prone to welcome those conceptions of regional cooperation which imply not only the inclusion of the DPRK but also the full or partial exclusion of its current opponents.
This article seeks to investigate how the various recent conceptions of Northeast Asian regional cooperation have been perceived by the North Korean leadership, how compatible they were with Pyongyang’s non-economic objectives, and how they might influence North Korean actions toward South Korea. Placing the present situation into a historical context, it argues that for the North Korean leaders, regional economic cooperation is less an end in itself than an issue seen through the prism of security policy. That is, such forms of Northeast Asian cooperation that bypass the DPRK or potentially reduce its room for maneuver are likely to elicit unfavorable reactions from Pyongyang. In contrast, the leadership is prone to welcome those conceptions of regional cooperation which imply not only the inclusion of the DPRK but also the full or partial exclusion of its current opponents.

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Published by: Balazs Alekszandrovics Szalontai on Dec 05, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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Hub or Backwater?North Korea Between Altenati ve Conceptions of Northeast Asian RegionalEconomic Cooperation
1
 Balázs Szalontai
2
1
The research project on which this article is based was supported by a Chinese Post-Doctoral Research Grant and the Kwngwoon University Industry–AcademicCollaboration Foundation. In the process of writing this article, the author also accumulat-ed a number of debts to his colleagues, including Bradley Martin, Richard Mason, ChenBo, Liang Zhi, and Shen Zhihua, for their kind support.
2
Balázs Szalontai is an assistant professor at Kwangwoon University in Seoul as well asassociate fellow and visiting scholar of the Institute of Occidental Studies, NationalUniversity of Malaysia. After receiving a Ph.D. in Soviet and Korean history, he has donearchival research on North Korea, Southeast Asia, Mongolia, India, and the USSR. Hispublications include
Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era: Soviet-DPRK Relations and the Roots of North Korean Despotism, 1953-1964
(Stanford University Press and WoodrowWilson Center Press, 2005) as well as articles and book chapters on North Korean andSoutheast Asian history. His current research projects are focused on North Korea’sinvolvement in the Vietnam War, DPRK–Middle East relations, and nuclear proliferation.
This article seeks to investigate how the various recent conceptions of  Northeast Asian regional cooperation have been perceived by the North Koreanleadership, how compatible they are with Pyongyang’s non-economic objectives,and how they might influence North Korean actions toward South Korea.Placing the present situation into a historical context, it argues that for the NorthKorean leaders, regional economic cooperation is less an end in itself than anissue seen through the prism of security policy. That is, such forms of Northeas Asian cooperation that bypass the DPRK or potentially reduce its room fomaneuver are likely to elicit unfavorable reactions from Pyongyang. In contrast,the leadership is prone to welcome those conceptions of regional cooperationwhich imply not only the inclusion of the DPRK but also the full or partial exclu-sion of its current opponents.
Keywords:
North Korea, Northeast Asia, regional economic cooperation,inter-Korean relations
 
Since the end of the Cold War, multilateral economic cooperationbetween the Northeast Asian countries (China, Japan, the two Koreas, Mongolia, and Russia) has made impressive progress, both in the sphereof trade and investment and in the creation of an institutional framework for regional integration. At the same time, tendencies of divergence alsoappeared, not least because the economic goals of the participating states w e re strongly influenced by power politics. As a consequence, theNortheast Asian governments, despite their common commitment to thegeneral idea of regional cooperation, were often in disagreement whenthey attempted to define which specific form of regional integrationwould be the most advantageous. To mention but one example, theChinese leadership, wary as it was about Japan’s intentions, initiallyopposed Toyo’s proposal to enlarge the East Asian Summit (EAS) to include such non-Asian democracies as Australia and New Zealand(Zhao, 2011, pp. 59–60).As did the other Northeast Asian states, North Korea wanted to par-ticipate in the process of regional economic cooperation but drew a dis-tinction between those forms of regional integration that appeared to becompatible with their specific interests and those that were not.Figuratively speaking, North Korea faced two alternatives: On the onehand, its leaders aspired to transform their country into a transportation hub linking China and Russia with South Korea and the East Sea; on theother hand, they feared the possibility that the DPRK might become aneconomic backwater, excluded from and left behind by the rapid progress of regional integration.This article seeks to investigate how the various recent conceptions of Northeast Asian regional cooperation have been perceived by the North North Korea’s Reactions to the Sino–Japanese Peace Treaty The Tumen River Area Development Program DPRK–ROK–Russian Trilateralism Sino–Japanese–South Korean Trilateralism SinoRussianNorth Korean Trilateralism Conclusion
84
Korea Review,Vol.
II
,No.
2
November
2012
 
Hub or Backwater?
85
Korean leadership, how compatible they have been with Pyongyang’snoneconomic objectives, and how they might influence North Koreanactions toward South Korea. Placing the present situation into a historicalcontext, it argues that for the North Korean leaders, regional economiccooperation is not an end in itself but an issue to be address in the contextof its security policy.
North Korea’s Reactions to the Sino–Japanese Peace Treaty
To assess the impact that one or another form of Northeast Asianregional cooperation might make on the course of North Korean foreign policy, it is worth recalling how the DPRK reacted to the conclusion of the Sino–Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship (August 12, 1978) and itssubsequent ratification (October 18, 1978). Fully aware of the signifi-cance of Sino–Japanese reconciliation, the leaders of the Korean Worers Party (KWP) at first made substantial eff orts to take advantage of the process, but as soon as they realized that the expected benefits would notmaterialize, they abruptly switched to an increasingly critical attitude.From Pyongyang’s perspective, the normalization of Sino-Japaneserelations seems not to have been either inherently advantageous or disad-vantageous. Instead, it had both positive and negative potential. Notably,in 1972 the North Korean leaders, in a sharp contrast with those of theUSSR, welcomed the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japanand the PRC, not least because this event greatly facilitated the growth of Japan–DPRK trade, gave Pyongyang unprecedented access to Japanesetechnology, and hence created considerable friction in Japan–South Korea relations (Cha, 1999, pp. 115–122). Under such circumstances, the KWPleadership had good reason to regard Sino–Japanese rapprochement as a doubly advantageous process that enhanced their position vis-à-vis SouthKorea. In 1978, however, the situation was far more ambivalent. In the sum-mer and early fall of the year—that is, during the final Sino–Japanese talksthat resulted in the conclusion of the peace treatyNorth Korean propa- ganda paid far more attention to the PRC than to the USSR, and even

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