North Korea at 70: How it survived and will endure

North Korean soldiers in formation during a military parade held on September 9 as part of events to celebrate the country’s 70th anniversary. Image: Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)

On September 9, 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was declared in northern Korea. This happened less than a month after South Korea had formally instituted its own government. Created as a result of Japanese imperialism, the end of World War II, and the dawn of the Cold War between the USA and Soviet Union, the division of the Korean peninsula remains a geopolitical reality. What is indeed noteworthy is the DPRK’s unusual ability to survive in a non-traditional manner. This unorthodox state is likely to survive in the future due to its ability to obtain outside aid, continued Chinese support, and ability to work towards its diplomatic aims.

North Korea has endured as long as it has because the Kim regimes have succeeded in obtaining outside aid from various sources. During the Cold War, this took the form of “equidistant diplomacy” wherein Pyongyang utilized China and the USSR as patrons for economic and military assistance. The DPRK was quite successful at this for decades. Chinese support has continued to the present, but other sources were needed after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The 1994 Agreed Framework paved the way for aid and assistance from the USA and other foreign governments. The North Korean famine in the 1990s led the country to request foreign aid, which it received and helped Pyongyang to survive the famine it experienced in the 1990s. The Sunshine policy, which was South Korea’s foreign policy from 1998-2008 was predicated on providing aid to North Korea.

The DPRK government’s number one goal is regime survival. It was a factor behind the creation of Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The Trump-Kim summit raised hopes that North Korea will open and reform, but it seems more likely that North Korea is seeking to use its bargaining position to extract more foreign aid from abroad. Both the US and South Korea are not pursuing regime change. Both countries have provided aid to North Korea before and both had Kim summits this year. Pyongyang’s track record over the last twenty-five years is pursuing its own agenda while appearing to bend to the will of the international community. This appears to be what will continue in the aftermath of the Trump-Kim summit in at least some form. Pyongyang’s nuclear program will likely be used as a bargaining tool to receive aid in exchange for limiting future testing or halting further nuclear proliferation.

China’s relationship with North Korea has remained constant as there is a longstanding friendship between the two nations which dates back to the 1940s. Despite reports to the contrary, recent events have shown that China is still supportive of North Korea. Kim Jong Un took power prior to reaching age 30 (in 2011) and was not initially viewed well in China. In the current Chinese system, leaders are cultivated rather than able to rise directly to the top, partially explaining why Beijing was initially hesitant towards the third Kim leader. This helps to explain why there was no state visit where he was received in China until this year. The recent visits have reaffirmed the enduring Beijing-Pyongyang relationship.

There are two important elements related to this arrangement that are worth noting. The first is Xi Jinping’s solidification of power within China. Now an apparent leader for life like his North Korean counterpart, he is emboldened to pursue foreign policy objectives outwardly. It may also not hurt that Kim Jong Un has been in power for a few years and has aged a little himself. Secondly, China does not truly fear a nuclear North Korea; it fears instability at the border that they share. To China, North Korea is a buffer state that provides border security and is a negotiation tool. Given that China and the United States are involved in a trade war now, it seems unlikely that Beijing will back further UN sanctions against Pyongyang. As the primary patron of North Korea, China’s support is paramount as roughly 90% of North Korea’s trade is with China. If anything recent events have strengthened the relationship between North Korea and its closest ally.

Ironically, North Korea is likely returning to equidistant diplomacy. In its 21st century form, this involves playing the interests of Washington and Beijing to the benefit of Pyongyang. The wild card in this equation is Seoul, which wants peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula. This new form of equidistant diplomacy was on center stage at North Korea’s 70th anniversary celebration this weekend. The message sent to Washington was seen in the lack of nuclear missiles on display at the parade. This is viewed as a positive by the Trump administration, that there is serious desire for denuclearization prior to a possible second Trump-Kim summit.

The message sent to Beijing was another affirmation of friendship. Kim held the hand of a high-ranking Chinese leader while a Chinese song was played for all to hear. This served to affirm the close partnership that has been displayed throughout this year while continuing to reassure China following the establishment of a direct line of communication with Washington. For Seoul, the Panmonjom Declaration from earlier this year reflected a message of peace and friendship. As inter-Korean relations prepare to take center stage again with the second meeting of the current Korean leaders set for later this month, it is possible that the wild card will be the driving factor in the diplomatic circumstances moving forward. Two key issues likely to be discussed at the forthcoming inter-Korean summit are economic coordination and declaring an official end to hostilities in order to establish a “peace regime.” This meeting could move both Koreas closer together and allow Pyongyang to play the larger power players to its own benefit.

North Korea’s unconventional survival strategy has helped the state last for seventy years. Obtaining aid to fund the regime has been an enduring strategy that has yielded a surprising amount of success. It helped the Kim regimes to retain power domestically and in turn work on developing nuclear weapons. Kim Jong Un is using the nuclear issue for regime security and will likely use it to negotiate for further outside aid. The shoring up of the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship will also ensure North Korea’s continued survival. The recent outward demonstration of friendship along with the strategic importance of North Korea to China has led to the reaffirmation of the longstanding partnership between these countries.

The outward display this weekend of a 21st century equidistant policy could be indicative of Pyongyang’s approach moving forward. But inter-Korean relations will be the key factor driving the diplomatic situation in the short term. North Korea has successfully used outside aid, patronage from its most important ally, and astute diplomacy to endure far longer than many expected.

*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

Tom Eck is a Ph.D. candidate at Texas A&M University. He holds a master’s in public administration from A&M and has lived in China & South Korea.