“The reason why Russia and North Korea seem to be actively talking is because the DPRK really has no other allies as its relations with China, Japan and South Korea have been unstable to say at the least,” says Cho Han-bum of the Korea Institute for National Unification.
Ever-present tensions with South Korea have worsened recently, and the North is suffering a drought which could affect food production. At the same time, the country’s ambiguous relationship with China continues.
Choe Thae Bok, chairman of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly, left the country on Tuesday on a diplomatic tour. A visit to Russia was confirmed by a spokesman for the upper house of the Russian parliament, who stated that the North Korean envoy would meet Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the upper house and one of the most powerful women in Russian politics.
Matviyenko is one of a number of prominent Russians who have been subject to sanctions imposed by the U.S. since the Ukraine crisis began.
High-ranking officials could strike meaningful agreements
John Grisafi, North Korea analyst and intelligence director of NK News, claims that the fact that high-level, experienced party members have been sent abroad shows that there is a greater purpose to these visits than simply meeting foreign figures. Choe, for example, has held several high-ranking positions in the party, such as his former position as head of international affairs for the workers’ party.
“His going abroad suggests more substance than ceremony and he likely has more authority to work out something meaningful and not simply be a token presence,” Grisafi says.
Kang Sok Ju, Political Bureau member and secretary of the Party Central Committee, has been discussed to Cuba, reportedly with a brief to discuss food aid.
“Kang Sok Ju also has a focus on foreign affairs and is currently international affairs secretary for the party. In many cases with North Korea, the party official responsible for a given issue is usually more seriously influential than their counterpart in the government ministries,” Grisafi said.
KCNA also reported a visit to Equatorial Guinea by foreign minister Ri Su Yong, claiming that the country would play host to the first of a series of meetings in “some African states.”
Kim Yong-nam, second only to Kim Jong-un in terms of the leadership of North Korea, visited Uganda, Sudan and the Republic of Congo last October, potentially revealing the importance of Africa in Pyongyang’s thinking.
Sea change in North Korea’s diplomacy?
It would be surprising if North Korea were truly to embrace international diplomacy given the secrecy that it has maintained for years. One emerging theory is that the trips were provoked by the opening of a United Nations office in Seoul, where staff will investigate alleged human rights abuses committed in the North.
It appears that North Korea is upset by the opening of the office, and showed its discontent by dropping out of an upcoming sporting event in Gwangju, South Korea. Officials claimed that the new UN office was the main reason for its withdrawal.
“The DPRK would not be able to attend the games because of the UN office that is planning an investigation on Kim Jong-un’s human rights violations,” unification researcher Cho added.
North Korean economy in trouble
South Korean newspaper Chosun Ibo claimed that the flurry of diplomatic missions could have been provoked by the worsening drought. Both KCNA and international groups have highlighted ongoing low rainfall which could seriously affect agricultural output and damage one of the most important sectors of the North Korean economy.
Pyongyang has previously struck deals for various kinds of aid with certain allies without entering into full diplomatic relations. If the international visits can secure food aid which could stave off famine should the drought continue, then they would be considered a success.
It appears unlikely that the visits herald a new age of openness from North Korea, given the fact that they will take in states with which Pyongyang has relatively warm relationships already. Visits to the select group of African states could be related to arms deals, as many of those countries are either known, or suspected, to be buying arms from North Korea.