North Korea’s Denuclearization: Echoes of China’s Reform and Opening-up?
Photo Credit: Reuters
By Stephen R. Nagy

North Korea’s Denuclearization: Echoes of China’s Reform and Opening-up?

Jul. 17, 2018  |     |  15 comments


Policy makers in Beijing view the tandem events of the April 27 Inter-Korean Summit and the June 12 Kim-Trump Singapore Summit as important turning points in North Korea’s diplomatic cycle of engagement and disengagement following the extraction of economic concessions from counterparts.


For Beijing, the denuclearization drama playing out on the Korean Peninsula has strong parallels with China’s own reform and opening-up process led by Deng Xiaoping beginning in 1978. The first evidence of Pyongyang’s pivot towards reform and opening-up were comments made by Kim Jung-un at the ruling Worker’s Party meeting in Pyongyang on April 21, 2018. There he stressed the need to “concentrate all efforts on building a powerful socialist economy” through “the mobilisation of all human and material resources.”


Afterwards, according to scholars in Beijing, Kim gathered all North Korean Generals and gave a lengthy address with no mention about nuclear weapons and/ or capabilities. The focus of the meeting was on economic construction and development, a clear shift from the first pillar of the byungjin ideology of parallel development (to achieve nuclear weapon capabilities) to the second pillar of economic development.


Chinese interpretations of this meeting saw it as re-educating North Korean Generals at the highest levels. It was the highest signal that Kim was shifting the North Korean national strategy from securing a strategic nuclear deterrent towards economic development. The meeting resonates with Deng’s initiatives in 1978 where he gathered Chinese PLA Generals to “re-educate” them on his new doctrine and strategy of reform and opening-up, following the chaotic rule of Mao Zedong from 1949 to Deng’s ascent as China’s paramount leader in 1978.


Developments there have led North Korean watchers in Beijing to conclude that Kim has drawn lessons from Deng’s reform and opening-up initiative and is committed to achieving modernization with North Korean characteristics. This 180-degree turn from isolation and nuclear brinksmanship towards an omnidirectional engagement strategy has maximized the fractures in the united front attempting to isolate Pyongyang. Observers believe that this can be traced back to the unanimous adopting of Resolution 2397 by the UN Security Council Sanctions on North Korea.


Observers in Beijing interpret Pyongyang’s response to the UN resolution to tighten sanctions as more evidence that Pyongyang is committed to economic development and engagement. In contrast to acerbic responses by Pyongyang to previous UN resolutions, Pyongyang was restrained and demonstrated its change in mindset and commitment to economic development by opening a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in the heart of Pyongyang on December 23, 2017.


SEZs were important hubs of economic dynamism under Deng and paved the way for China’s social economic development over the past 30 years, helping to move 800 million people out of poverty. Kim seems to be attempting to localize the China SEZ model to meet the constraints of North Korea’s authoritarian and tightly-controlled society.


Notwithstanding the relative confidence Beijing has in Pyongyang’s commitment to economic reform and opening-up, there is much less confidence in the prospects for denuclearization in the short-, medium-, and long-term. First, there is the problem of nuclear weapons being enshrined in the North Korean Constitution. This means that nuclear weapons are a political issue to be resolved within North Korea before it can begin the process of denuclearization. In this sense, Kim needs to re-educate and recalibrate North Korea’s nuclear capable political identity to one that is denuclearized.


Here again, we have similarities with the reform and opening-up period under Deng. He had to shift the mindset of the Chinese Communist Party and its supporters from a political identity that stressed a global socialist revolution to one that revolved around Deng's four modernizations.



North Korea may use protracted negotiations to denuclearize as in the past to extract economic and other forms of aid from stakeholders to develop its economy and retain a very limited nuclear strategic deterrent.



Second, North Korea and the US need to overcome severe mutual distrust. The continuity in the North Korean leadership, its experience in negotiating with the US, and slips of the tongue such as the applying the "Libyan Model" to the North’s denuclearization process restrains the North from proceeding with a unilateral denuclearization process. Their strong preference is for a step-by-step process characterized by a quid pro quo of mutual and synchronized concessions. We saw this mistrust play out again with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s latest visit to North Korea on July 6-7, with North Korea accusing the US as being unilateral in their demands.


Third, policy makers are clearheaded about the reality of the daunting technological hurdles to a quick denuclearization. The dismantling of an unspecified inventory of various nuclear capabilities requires transparency and expertise. This dismantling process will necessarily include the facilities that by some accounts are still producing fissile materials (enriched uranium and plutonium).


Lastly, realism is pervasive amongst Pyongyang watchers in China about the fate of the scientific community and associated military officers who have been employed in the production of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. A key question to be addressed is how to re-train and re-employ thousands of individuals who have secured their iron rice bowls and social positions in building a strategic nuclear deterrent as North Korea pursues denuclearization.


In the short term, optimism about the resumption of diplomacy and the de-escalation in tensions between Washington and Pyongyang is tangible. Nevertheless, most observers are much more sombre and saturnine in their assessment about denuclearization over the long-term. Simply, as the details of the complexity of the denuclearization process become clearer and as both stakeholders move towards a comprehensive verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of all nuclear and delivery systems, the negotiations will become tenser and it will be more difficult to come to a mutually acceptable position.


With the reality that any potential denuclearization process will be a long and arduous one, we are left to pose the question as to what Pyongyang’s intentions are. Beijing believes that achieving substantial economic development and regime security remain the core objectives of Pyongyang’s engagement strategy. Furthermore, experts believe the shift in thinking is related to the punitive unilateral and UN sanctions which have had severe effects on the North Korean economy.


To achieve Pyongyang’s economic and regime security objectives, the Kim regime has identified three priorities: 1) restore and improve relations with major countries including China, Russia, the US, and South Korea; 2) encourage China and South Korea to restore financial and economic aid; and 3) reduce and remove all sanctions on the North Korean economy. These are a tall order and can only be comprehensively achieved through denuclearization. At the same time, North Korea may use protracted negotiations to denuclearize as in the past to extract economic and other forms of aid from stakeholders to develop its economy and retain a very limited nuclear strategic deterrent.


The Chinese leadership under Deng made similar choices in the late 70s. They eschewed ideological aspirations for a global socialist revolution for pragmatic economic policy as embodied in Deng's own words: “We mustn’t fear to adopt the advanced management methods applied in capitalist countries (...) The very essence of socialism is the liberation and development of the productive systems (...) Socialism and market economy are not incompatible (...) We should be concerned about right-wing deviations, but most of all, we must be concerned about left-wing deviations.”


Through reaching out and restoring relations with the US, Japan and the West, China under Deng’s pragmatic leadership received invaluable overseas development assistance and foreign direct investment that contributed to China’s economic development and movement from the periphery of the global economy to one of the current engines of global growth.


At the same time, North Korea may be also borrowing from Deng's 24-character strategy of observing and analyzing calmly (冷静观察), strengthening their own position (稳住阵脚), undertaking change with confidence (沉着应付), concealing their true potential (韬光养晦), contributing their part (有所作为), and never becoming the leader (决不当头).


Throughout China’s first period of reform and opening-up, it transformed its economy and incrementally-strengthened its economic, diplomatic, and military capabilities. The fruits of this period of consolidation and self-strengthening are seen in China’s economic size and global reach, its growing capacities to assert its claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea and its ability to create new international institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.


While North Korea is most certainly not so ambitious, its negotiating track record strongly suggests that the prolonged denuclearization process and efforts to simultaneously develop its economy resonate with China’s history of reform and opening-up. This is especially true of the characteristic of developing a dynamic, regionally integrated economy while retaining a powerful military deterrent to maintain regime security and to press its longstanding historical, political and military claims in the region.



15 Comments To This Article

  • helenaandre
    helenaandre

    on Oct 05, 2018 at 09:49 AM - Reply

    1

    In my opinion, it is going to be very interesting to see the role that China is going to play in the future. Moreover, the US should now think of what the president of North Korea will ask in return for denuclearilization and how far the US is willing to go in the negotiations. I am curious to see how the relationship between the US and North Korea is going to develop economically and politically. North Korea is definitely trying to enter the international trade market by establishing new relationships with key players and powerful countries. North Korea is probably also looking for the US to left the economical sanctions that this state impost on North Korea directly or indirectly. The decisions outcomes from the relationship holds by these two countries can affect the whole world even if some effects can be anticipated other might appear as black swan. Every country should try to anticipate further actions of these to countries and think of their own reactions to this events.

  • ytakada
    ytakada

    on Oct 10, 2018 at 01:15 PM - Reply

    2

    This article reminds me of the Special Economic Zones in Rason and Kaesong. In the past, these economic zones have been in the difficult position, but as long as North Korea is going to engage more on economic issues, the existence of the Economic Zones including newly Pyongyang’s will be a better opportunity for foreign enterprises. Since North Korea has not been widely opened for the global market, from this point, there would be some interesting business activities, especially in East Asia.

  • mozevladimir
    mozevladimir

    on Oct 10, 2018 at 01:56 PM - Reply

    3

    I think there are two more points (or, in that case, factors) that we have to pay attention to in that case, even though on the whole I find the article very robust in logic and analysis and am thus inclined to agree with what is written. The first is the notion of political leadership in China and North Korea. Whatever changes and reforms they embark on, the ruling party shall remain the milestone. That means that any democratisation and economical liberalisation are principally constrained by the fact that the ruling party will not give up a bit of its power. Next, 'building a socialist economy' is a very vague term to use, and in the DPRK they are sure to be using it on purpose. Let us take China as an example again. In Chinese terms, China is 'in the transition to communism', which means that any deviation such as market mechanisms is justified. It is unclear, however, if North Korea is ready to take that path. In my view, probability of any fundamental change in North Korea is dependent on the internal stability; the regime might seem very stable, adopting totalitarian methods, but at the same time Kim Jong-Un is reported to be extremely afraid of being toppled or ousted, and the fear is such that his reluctance to leave the country is often explained by his belief that a coup d'etat might happen during his absence. Furthermore, as for North Korea's nuclear detergent, I would say that North Korean administration will do its utmost to preserve the missiles they already have, for not only is such kind of weaponary ultimately effective in terms of strategical deterrence, but it had already cost DPRK too much to give it up so easily. What is more, we have huge military forces in DPRK, and this again brings us to the question of sustainability of the North Korean regime. In case Kim agrees to dismantle all nuclear arsenal, can it possibly be a trigger for a military coup? Military is always the power one cannot ignore, and I teng to believe that even under the totalitarian rule there are die-hard patriots, 'hawks' and other kinds of hardliners who might perceive giving up the nuclear weapons as betrayal and, having accumulated sufficient influence, attempt at toppling the leader. Vladimir M.

    • Kurihara
      Kurihara

      on Oct 11, 2018 at 01:32 AM - Reply

      4

      I agree and believe in the existence of "die-hard patriots, 'hawks' and other kinds of hardliners". But at the end of the day, I find it hard to believe that they would aquire a will to "accumulated sufficient influence" to "attempt at toppling the leader". Historicaly there have been two methods of overthrowing a leader. One is a revolution driven by populism. Second is a coup d'etat (foreign intervention, or a domestic uprising). Although I lack in facts, the toppling of a leader is very unlikely as both states have a loyal population. And they would remain loyal so long as the population's security does not deteorate. That is how a autocracy works. All this being said, I believe that authoritarian leaders, Xi and Kim, are in a safe situation. A commfort democratic leaders cannot afford.

    • ShekTinLok
      ShekTinLok

      on Oct 15, 2018 at 12:38 AM - Reply

      5

      I think Kim have tight control of military after the purge. of conservatives in party, I do agree the fact that socialist economy is a vague term. China right now is half planned market economy, which China have tight control and ownership to big cooperation and they aim to extend their control to foreign owned cooperation. China did nothing to fulfill his promise when applying for WTO membership. protectionism, no protection on foreign IPR, the North Korean want this way. The Deng's reform and open up, absorb the experience of the Gorbachev reformation in USSR , aims only for economic reformation. They just use the market mechanism as a way to generate wealth instead of a full market/economic liberalisation. The government intervention in Chinese market is still very strong. Just like the case how Mark Zuckerberg beg to get into the Chinese market but being blocked by the Great wall.

  • Yui Uchino
    Yui Uchino

    on Oct 10, 2018 at 03:09 PM - Reply

    6

    Kim Jungun stressed building a powerful socialist economy by the mobilization of all human and material resources on April. From there, North Korea changed the direction of policy from achieving nuclear weapons capability to economic development. The transformation of policy in a completely different direction by North Korea would have had a major impact on the world. As mentioned in the article, units that were planning to isolate North Korea would have suffered a great abrupt blow. Furthermore, I am concerned about the relationship between North Korea and the US, that the truly denuclearization transparency will be preserved by rapid denuclearization. In the end, the implementation of the rapid denuclearization of North Korea seems to be only a performance by North Korea to reduce the sanctions against North Korea, to repair relationship with neighboring countries, to derive economic aid from other stakeholders .

  • Saya Ishihara
    Saya Ishihara

    on Oct 12, 2018 at 09:15 AM - Reply

    7

    As the article says, the idea of possessing nuclear weapons is deeply ingrained in North Korea’s perspective, and the priority for denuclearizing the peninsula is perhaps to help North Korea to introduce new identity and reestablish its condition. To realize this, I assume that the understanding toward the correlation between the North’s difficulty of denuclearizing and its identity is needed for the stakeholders. At this moment, it seems that stakeholders, especially the US, are more focusing on the consequence (denuclearization) rather than the process as to how to achieve this. It is significant to more focus on the process, including the reform and openness, and the mutual cooperation and trust between the North and others. Regarding Kim Jong-Un’s three priorities, it seems that his main focus in on the economy and that he visualizes the future of North Korea as an independent country that can sustain its economy, which indicates that his recent attitude for reunification of the Korean peninsula is a mere performance to gain the short-term effects.

  • inmtyk
    inmtyk

    on Oct 13, 2018 at 10:23 PM - Reply

    8

    By opening up the special economic zone, North Korea tried to show its shift of focus to economic development in 2017. The SEZ is one of the ways of Chinese development that North Korea is referring to, but how effective SEZ is in the process of development. Many Chinese companies help African countries to open the SEZ, but some of them seem to be beneficial for China more than those African countries. I have heard it is hard to measure the effectiveness of the SEZ, and researchers at international institutions like WB or IMF are trying to find a way to figure out. This casts a question of where North Korea wants to head to through economic development, especially by using the SEZ: whether North Korea would get benefits out of introducing the SEZ to accelerate economics or whether other countries take advantage of the SEZ in North Korea.

  • ShekTinLok
    ShekTinLok

    on Oct 15, 2018 at 12:31 AM - Reply

    9

    I wonder how the South-North Korea relationship will go. If North Korea joins the world instead of isolating himself with this nuclear bomb, will they start to think about reunification?Both Korea have claim on each other written in the constitution, aiming to reunification. However, with such a huge difference in culture, politic system and economy, especially when Kim definitely does not want to lose his throne, how can the two Korea peacefully reunify? The best way is through influx of economic aid and soft power from South Korea just as the Sunshine policy aims to. However, the South Koreans are crying for reconstruction and redistribution of economy right now, Does the Mun government have such a luxury to continue to spend on North-South Korea cooperation? The consensus of mutual existence of two nation seems to be the easier way.But giving up unification, how will it hit the legitimacy of both government? Creating a new identity without unification maybe a tougher task then reunification. How will the South Korea react to that? I do not think the South Korea has any plan at all at this moment.

  • LMLampton
    LMLampton

    on Oct 16, 2018 at 06:33 PM - Reply

    10

    This article discusses the potential motivations of Pyongyang in their recent interactions with the US and South Korea. Statements made by Kim indicate a shift in focus from the development of strategic nuclear deterrents to developing the North Korean economy and this article's author speculates that they may be willing to give up their nuclear deterrents in exchange for development aid and the lifting of economic sanctions. The article also mentions Kim's espoused byungjin ideology, which focuses on the dual development of nuclear deterrents and the economy. Based on this ideology and the fact that they have pursued nuclearization this far, I think it's unlikely that Pyongyang will fully denuclearize. The most likely outcome seems to be that Pyongyang will reduce it's nuclear arsenal in exchange for aid and reduced sanctions while maintaining a select few nuclear deterrents.

  • Victor B.L
    Victor B.L

    on Oct 16, 2018 at 10:21 PM - Reply

    11

    I sometimes wonder why the US has not been taking further advantages of North Korea's unexpected goodwill. Obviously, the denuclearization may be harder than expected, and one has to be very careful in a situation of negotiations with a country such as North Korea, where the regime will always try to guarantee its own survival before everything else. However, since the North Korea is so keen on opening up and strenghtening its bonds with powerful actors, why hasn't the US tried to come up as more willing to accept this 'redemption'? As things are now, by clinging to their unilateral demands, it seems to me the US is taking the risk of 1) either preventing the denuclearization from ever happening or 2) pushing North Korea into the arms of regional rivals, such as China or Russia. On the other hand, if the US could overcome its distrust of Kim Jong-Un's regime and get closer to it, they could obtain a future support in a region where Americans are progressively losing foot. It is understandable the US doesn't want the situation to get too advantageous for a country that has countless times emitted threats towards the Americans and their allies. But I also believe that not exploiting the current situation and remaining in an inflexible stance may end up harming American interests much more than benefitting to them. Since this article makes a comparison between North Korea and Deng's China, the US would do well to remember how their distrust of China have turned the latter into one of its major rivals, and to consider avoiding to repeat the same mistake.

  • s.huang13
    s.huang13

    on Oct 16, 2018 at 10:25 PM - Reply

    12

    It seems that as of right now, North Korea's main goal is for economic development and they seem to be following Deng Xiao Ping's strategy for China, which I am interested in seeing how North Korea will improve or not improve by following Ping's strategies. Because of North Korea's desires to improve their economy, how will the United States respond to it? Even though North Korea's focus seems to have shifted to their economy, nuclear weapons isn't really off the tables, so when North Korea does boost their economy, nuclear weapons may be a threat again. Although North Korea is following Ping's system, their circumstances differ from each other, so the results may vary. I'm also interested in what South Korea's role in this system will be. How much is China willing to help North Korea since North Korea is following their footsteps in a sense?

  • CKN
    CKN

    on Oct 17, 2018 at 01:23 AM - Reply

    13

    It is very interesting that Kim Jong Un is turning out to be a North Korean reformer; when he first emerged, he rather was more like a fanatical version of his father, although recent events have pushed him towards a more Deng Xiaoping-esque approach. The two things I am most interested is the potential level of denuclearization in North Korea and the potential degree of any political liberalization that could come with economic development and Deng-esque reforms. To the first, I highly doubt that North Korea will attempt to maintain full nuclear capacity; rather, its best interests lie in negotiating gradual denuclearization in return for gradually reduced sanctions and foreign aid until North Korea no longer needs to negotiate away its by-then limited nuclear defense system. Whether that happens will depend on the will and strength of not only the US government, but also the evolving interests of Russia and China as well as the domestic political situations of South Korea and Japan, as strength from traditional North Korean enemies could see the complete extinguishing of a nuclear defense system or enough pressure to force North Korea to end diplomatic negotiations. The second part, political liberalization, is intriguing due to comparisons with China. It is true that China is still a highly authoritarian nation, but it has certainly left a lot of its more Maoist and cultish trappings and China has had to give extensive economic power to the rising upper class of the urban areas. How North Korea will confront its status as the most totalitarian nation on Earth with a strong cult of personality around the Kim family when it begins its economic reforms is truly unknown, but we can expect a Pandora's box of opportunities and surprises from that ensuing process.

  • AndrewK
    AndrewK

    on Oct 17, 2018 at 04:11 PM - Reply

    14

    I feel like this can go two ways, where either Kim Jong Un "successfully" reforms the North Korean economy echoing China's reforms in the past, and tries to become a player in the global economy, throwing away their traditional socialist ideals and embracing capitalistic ideals, or fails to do so and ends up with another decades-long back and forth of economic aid and threatening. While I do agree with the positioning of the former, North Korea needs to learn from the mistakes of China in their ambition and thirst for new territory and influence, so as not to create even more room for conflict between the powers in Asia. What is even more worrying is that, if North Korea would increase their economic influence on the world stage, they would most likely align with China, adding a (theoretically) strong ally in the region that borders Korea and is within striking range of Japan. For the sake of stability, I feel that North Korea should continue to understand the situation of the region, and use this as motivation or reminder in their original ideology of socialism; use capitalist management techniques to improve production, but continue to balance it with socialist values.

  • Lucas W
    Lucas W

    on Oct 22, 2018 at 08:41 PM - Reply

    15

    While I see the benefits in the strategy of protracted negotiations on denuclearizing for North Korea, I think that arguments assumes a consistency that the world, more specifically the US, just doesn't have. While Kim Jong-un and President Xi Jingping are both ruling their parties and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, there is no such certainty in many other countries. If you look at South Korea, they have had several Presidents in the past years, some of whom have been indited on corruptions charges. Constant changes in leadership results in a fracturing of the states goals. New leaders come in with their own agenda and own way of doing things, many of which many not be inline with the previous leader. There is no better example of this than the US. Every four years there is a presidential election, in the scheme of things that's a very short time. It's guaranteed in the US that at most every eight years the president will change, and in-between presidential election there are congressional elections. With the constant changing and flipping of powers it's almost impossible to settle on a long term strategy that predecessors will follow. In just a few weeks there will be congressional elections that may flip control of the house and/or senate to the democrats, and that's almost guaranteed to affect US policy making. From my understanding of this article, it assumes the negotiations will continue on track with little variation, now that North Korea maybe following a Chinese model. And while it's true that North Korea will stay fairly consistent now, I think it is too large of a guess to responsibly predict how the US will move forwards on this issue. Perhaps after the midterm elections a shorter term prediction can be made, but in general I think the inconstancy in the US system makes long term predictions too difficult.

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