Seoul, South Korea – A burst of international engagement and upcoming diplomatic moves by North Korea indicates a shift in the hard line state’s external relations strategy, but Pyongyang watchers expect little progress from expected outreach to the European Union and the United States.
In the spring of 2013, Pyongyang unleashed a barrage of apocalyptic rhetoric during annual US-South Korean military drills, but this year, it appears to be taking a more diplomatic approach to foreign relations. Against a recent backdrop of increased international initiatives, overseas trips by two high-profile regime insiders – perhaps designed to help Pyongyang break the chains of isolation and overreliance upon China – are currently under way.
North Korea – formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – is known for its secrecy, and details of these trips are murky.
They want aid from the Europeans, but the EU has its own economic problems, which are not conducive to increasing aid.
Kang Sok-ju, secretary and director of the Korean Workers’ Party International Affairs Department, is making a rare 10-day visit to Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland this week. Al Jazeera has confirmed an engagement in Switzerland on September 12, arranged by the low profile crisis resolution NGO Inter Mediate.
However, EU, German, and Swiss officials have all downplayed the significance of Kang’s visit.
Subsequently, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong is expected to address the last day of the UN’s upcoming 69th General Assembly in New York. Al Jazeera has seen a draft list for the assembly: a DPRK “minister” is scheduled to speak on September 30. However, a UN official – who asked to remain anonymous because he wasn’t allowed to speak to the media – warned the list is provisional.
These visits follow a surprise press conference staged by Pyongyang for foreign media last week, during which three American detainees pleaded for US official assistance to secure their release.
Moreover, there have been extensive talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang over recent months on the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents. On the sidelines of a rare Japan-brokered pro-wrestling match in Pyongyang early last week, event organiser and Japanese parliamentarian Antonio Inoki met with Kang to discuss the issue. If resolved, the abductee issue could enable Pyongyang-Tokyo diplomatic ties and a potentially huge economic package, including reparations for Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule.
In August, Ri visited Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, and Singapore, prior to which he had toured Africa and the Middle East.
All these activities constitute what Seoul media call a “diplomatic offensive strategy” by Pyongyang.
Pyongyang’s diplomatic duo
North Korean watchers said Kang and Ri are significant players in Pyongyang’s power politics, but absent concrete information, could only speculate on their current and upcoming visits.
Kang, 75, is one of a handful of officials to have served all three generations of the Kim dynasty: state founder Kim Il-sung; his son Kim Jong-il; and his grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. His highest profile role was as negotiator of the 1994 “Agreed Framework”, under which North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities in exchange for light-water reactors from the international community. That deal unravelled in 2002.
In Brussels on Tuesday, Kang met Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported. During their meeting, Brok urged North Korea not to become a nuclear power and to open a human rights dialogue with the EU.
An official with the Swiss foreign ministry told Al Jazeera that Kang also will meet Swiss State Secretary of Foreign Affairs Yves Rossier – an engagement requested by North Korea and set up by London-based Inter Mediate. The official called the meeting “a courtesy visit [that] … constitutes a traditional, minimal meeting.”
It is not clear whether Inter Mediate, headed by Jonathan Powell, a former chief-of-staff in Tony Blair’s government, is brokering just the Swiss meeting, or Kang’s full trip. Inter Mediate declined to comment on its work with North Korea.
Regardless, as the ex-negotiator of the “Agreed Framework”, Kang is familiar with Geneva, where that agreement originated.
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“Switzerland is a playground for rich North Koreans, the place where they park their money, and where the money of the Kim family is managed,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea analyst at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “They have large investments and use the Swiss banking system.”
Among North Koreans familiar with Switzerland is leader Kim Jong-un, who was partly educated there.
Conversely, some Korean media have speculated the real reason behind Kang’s Swiss visit is to attend an international seminar being held there on the Japanese abductee issue.
Analysts speculated that in Belgium, Kang hopes to meet key figures before the EU Parliament convenes in October, but “no official visit” by North Korea authorities is scheduled with the European Commission (the EU’s executive body) or the European External Action Service (the EU’s de facto foreign ministry), a Brussels official said by email.
“They want aid from the Europeans, but the EU has its own economic problems, which are not conducive to increasing aid,” Lankov added. “And North Korea’s human rights record is not good for them.”
Another barrier to trade and investment is North Korea’s default on multi-million dollar loans from European banks dating back to the 1970s.
A German foreign ministry official told Al Jazeera that he was aware of talk about Kang’s German trip, but said German officialdom was not party to his visit, and added he was unsure if the visit would take place. But Germany – a former divided nation like the Koreas – has long been a focus of North Korean diplomatic interest, perhaps explaining its position on Kang’s itinerary.
Why Kang is visiting Italy, a nation with no special significance for North Korea, remains unclear. Italian officials were unavailable for comment. Chris Green of DailyNK, a Seoul-based online English newspaper, wondered whether the visit might be related to luxury goods, such as yachts. These products – believed by some to be instruments with which Kim buys the loyalty of North Korea’s elite – are sanctioned by the UN.
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Ri, appointed Pyongyang’s foreign minister in April, is believed to be close to Kim, having been ambassador to Switzerland when Kim studied there.
“The previous foreign minister was just a figurehead with marginal policy-making power, but Ri was the confidante in Switzerland, effectively the money man, so is very inner-circle,” said Park So-keel, of NGO Liberty in North Korea. “He went back to Pyongyang in 2010 and that is significant, as it was when the succession to Kim Jong-il was heating up.”
What North Korea wants
If Ri addresses the UN General Assembly, it will be the first time in 15 years for a senior North Korean official to attend. That address, and his recent diplomatic efforts, may be designed to deflect criticism of Pyongyang’s human rights record, which has been investigated by the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights.
“I think the Ri trip to New York may have something to do with that, as General Assembly nations will be voting on a resolution as a follow up to the COI report,” Park noted. “It looks like more isolation for North Korea if they let this just play out, but if they go and play nicely with Southeast Asian and African countries, maybe they can talk about things.”
North Korea’s goals are believed to be diplomatic relations with Washington and Tokyo; better global relations generally to offset its overreliance on China; and increased aid and investment. But it faces two major stumbling blocks: strategic weapons and human rights abuses.
The previous foreign minister was just a figurehead with marginal policy-making power, but Ri was the confidante in Switzerland, effectively the money man, so is very inner-circle.
Observers say Pyongyang is making some efforts to upgrade its notorious human rights record – for example at the London Olympics, it fielded its first-ever para-athlete, and disabled North Korean athletes are expected at the upcoming Asian Games, held in Incheon, South Korea, next week. “This is very much for show, but indicates that they know what the international community would like them to do,” said Green of DailyNK. “But they would have to go a lot further than they have gone so far.”
As for strategic weapons – missiles and nuclear warheads – nobody expects North Korea to accept international pressure and abandon them.
“They want to talk with the US, they want aid from the outside world, they want to break out of deadlock and stagnation – but without giving up nuclear weapons,” said Choi Jin-wook, senior North Korean researcher at Seoul’s Korea Institute of National Unification.
Still, if ongoing diplomatic outreach does improve North Korea’s international relations, there may be wriggle room: Green suggested a weapons testing moratorium, for example, could be negotiated.
Even so, pundits remain cynical about Pyongyang’s current manoeuvring.
“I think it makes sense from the North Korea point of view, they are doing the right thing,” said Lankov. “But I don’t think there is much chance of success.”