- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A string of unexpected, even odd, overtures from North Korea to its neighbors in recent days is fueling speculation that the isolated nation and its mercurial leader could be seeking to broaden its diplomatic options elsewhere in the region to account for a cooling relationship with Pyongyang’s principal ally, China.

The communist nation announced Monday it would send 150 cheerleaders to the Asian Games, the continent’s largest sporting event, which will be held in Incheon, South Korea, in September. But the goodwill gesture — which appears insignificant, if not comical, on its face — comes days after North Korea called for reunification with South Korea through a federal formula that would allow for the two countries to maintain their separate ideologies and social systems.

The steps are a departure from the bellicose rhetoric and saber rattling from the regime of Kim Jong-un, which last year declared a “state of war” against its neighbor and in recent weeks has test-fired missiles in the face of what appear to be warming relations between China and South Korea.

In developments with wider regional implications, North Korea also this month entered into talks with Japan centering on a lengthy dispute over 17 Japanese citizens kidnapped and held in the North since the Cold War. And in April, North Korea signed a trade agreement with Russia that calls for a $1 billion increase in bilateral commerce by 2020.

James Person, a historian and coordinator of the North Korean International Documentation Project for the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank, said North Korea’s Mr. Kim is trying to build up his ties with other nations because he wants to wean his country off its trade dependency on China.

“I think we are going to see, perhaps, a flurry of diplomatic activity by North Korea,” he said.

Ellen Kim, a Center for Strategic and International Studies national security analyst specializing in U.S.-Korean relations, noted that friction between Beijing and Pyongyang is motivating North Korea to strengthen its relationships with other countries.

The actions have been received well in some quarters. Japan last week lifted some unilateral, if symbolic, sanctions against North Korea in response to the offer to discuss the return of its kidnapped citizens — which Japanese officials have long held is a priority before any type of normalization of relations can be considered.

That diplomatic agreement will prove beneficial for both countries, Ms. Kim said.

“There’s a huge incentive for both Japan and North Korea to talk about the kidnapped victims on the Japan side and North Korea trying to get some kind of deal out of it,” she said.

In addition to Japan, President Vladimir Putin has paid increasing attention to Russia’s former Cold War ally, with promises of increased diplomatic and economic engagement amid an ongoing showdown with the West over Ukraine. Last month, Mr. Putin engineered a vote in his country’s parliament to forgive 90 percent of Soviet-era debt owed by North Korea as the Russian leader attempts to negotiate construction of a gas pipeline through North Korea and into South Korea.

Well-timed thaw

The thawing relations couldn’t come at a better time for officials in Pyongyang, who are suddenly eager to counterbalance their trade-dependent relationship with China, which provides support to North Korea to maintain stability on their shared 800-mile border, according to Mr. Person.

The Chinese “are content with just keeping the North Koreans afloat so that their economic development is not jeopardized,” he said. “Their problem, though, is that the Chinese are starting to get frustrated now because they see North Korea militarism is causing damage.”

Chinese frustration mounted earlier this year after North Korea pursued its third test of a nuclear weapon — the first under the Kim regime — in open defiance of Beijing.

Volatility in the North Korean government led to the embarrassing disclosure in May that China has prepared contingency plans in the event the unstable Kim regime collapses.

Indications of China’s frustration with Mr. Kim can be seen in a visit last week to the peninsula by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has historically paid his respects to North Korea first before visiting Seoul. Mr. Xi this time chose to engage in a dialogue with the South Korean government first, which some analysts see as a calculated slight against North Korea.

Pyongyang, in a statement of its own, test-fired rockets and missiles from its east coast.

It’s unclear if South Korea is willing to engage in diplomatic talks with the North. A July 6 Korean Central News Agency statement calls for “realizing the cause of national reunification,” and the two sides this year entered into their highest-level engagement in seven years. Talks, encouraged by the U.S. State Department, focused on a plan to allow reunions of families that have been split between the two Koreas for more than 60 years — since the 1950-1953 Korean War ended without a peace treaty.

But Seoul has insisted on North Korean demilitarization as a condition of negotiations, while the North wants its neighbor to abandon its military cooperation with the United States, which still has 28,500 troops stationed in the country.

Equally unclear is how the fluctuating alliances could affect the so-called “six-party talks” to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions — a goal that Beijing has supported but which could be at least temporarily subverted if relations continue to warm between Moscow and North Korea.

“The ultimate goal for South Korea is that North Koreans reaffirm their commitment to the denationalization process,” Ms. Kim said.

That may not be an easy feat to achieve, Mr. Person said.

“You don’t see a lot of lasting positive results from these short-term improvements in relations,” Mr. Person said. “The problem is that there are so many sensitivities. One perceived insult could lead to a derailment of these improvements in relations.”

• Maggie Ybarra can be reached at mybarra@washingtontimes.com.

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