북한이 중국, 미국, 한국과의 외교적 교착상태를 탈피하기 위해 유럽, 러시아, 일본과의 관계강화를 모색 중이다.
강석주 북한 노동당 국제비서는 지난 6일부터 열흘 일정으로 독일과 벨기에, 스위스, 이탈리아를 방문해 국제사회로부터 고립된 북한의 외교적 돌파구 마련을 시도했다. 하지만 그는 이번 방문에서 주로 방문국 관계자들만 만났을 뿐 고위급 인사접촉은 대부분 불발돼 기대했던 성과는 얻지 못했다는 관측이다.
경제적 어려움에 처한 여러 유럽국가들은 북한의 ‘구걸 외교’에 응해 줄 여건이 아니다. 또한 북-유럽 간의 무역은 지리적으로 먼 거리와 부적합한 경제적 시스템으로 인해 활성화되기 어렵다.
북한은 또한 우크라이나 사태로 서방과 관계가 악화된 러시아와 관계강화를 모색하고 있으나, 현 시점 양국 간 무역은 거의 이뤄지지 않는 상태다. 러시아가 북한과의 무역을 보조할지는 두고 봐야 할 일이다.
북한은 일본인 납치범 사안을 지렛대 삼아 일본으로부터 얼마간의 경제적 이득을 챙겼다. 하지만 여러 가지의 문제들이 양국 간 외교 정상화의 길을 가로막고 있다.
북한이 ‘전통적 외교 채널’로부터 벗어나 새로운 타깃을 찾고 있는 것은 현재 직면한 외교적 고립 때문이다. 지난 2~3년간 한국과 미국 및 중국으로부터 조여오는 ‘3각압박’을 돌파하는 것이 북한 외교정책의 주요목표가 돼 왔다. 그렇지만 북한은 이들 국가와의 관계에서 벽에 부딪힌 상황이다.
지난 6년간 미국은 북한이 핵을 포기하지 않는 한 그 어떤 양보도 하지 않을 것이라는 입장을 고수해 왔다. 북한이 핵을 정권의 유일한 생존의 보루이자 외교적 지렛대로 여김에 따라 상황은 개선되지 않고 있다.
박근혜 정부는 북한의 요구에 원칙적인 입장을 고수하면서 협상하지 않고 있다. 북한 또한 한국 보수정당의 동기에 의심을 품고 있다. 한국의 보수정치인들이 청와대와 여당을 지키고 있는 한 북한의 정책결정자들이 남한과의 관계개선을 위한 노력을 하지는 않을 것으로 보인다.
시진핑 국가주석의 중국 또한 북한에 매우 비판적이다. 하지만 북한의 안정화를 원하는 중국은 북한에 상당한 양의 원조와 무역을 제공할 의향을 가지고 있다. 하지만 중국에 의한 경제적 흡수를 두려워하는 북한은 중국과의 무역에서 조심스런 태도를 유지하고 있다. 북한은 특히 경제적 통합이 정치적 간섭으로 이어질 가능성에 대해 경계를 하고 있다.
Kang Sok-ju, Korean Workers’ Party secretary for international issues, has departed for a trip to a number of European countries. He visits Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and Germany where he meets local politicians from assorted political parties. There is little doubt that the expected visit of a high level North Korean dignitary is meant to be an attempt to improve North Korean relations with Europe.
Such an attempt agrees very well with what we have heard about North Korean diplomacy throughout the last few months. Apart from Europe, North Korean diplomats have recently begun to pay much attention to Japan and Russia.
Last spring and early summer, there was a great deal of talk about the need of North Korea to improve relations with Russia and to dramatically increase bilateral trade ? contrary to widespread misconceptions, trade between the two is basically non-existent present. The fallout over Ukraine and subsequent deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West has proved to be quite useful from the North Koreans point of view: in the new situation, Russia is more inclined to make deals with Pyongyang.
At the same time, North Korean diplomats have begun to consort with Japan. The North Korean side even made some concessions pertaining to the seemingly insolvable abductee issue ? expecting, of course, some monetary rewards and economic assistance in exchange for the cooperation.
It remains to be seen to what extent such efforts will bear fruit. It is quite possible that West European diplomats will ignore North Korean advances. It remains to be seen whether Russia will be willing to subsidize trade with North Korea ? and there are good reasons to suspect that without such subsidies will not grow fast enough. A number of problems prevent normalization of relations with Japan. So, a lot of uncertainties remain. It is nonetheless clear that current North Korean policy is aimed at moving beyond the China-US-South Korean triangle that has for the last two decades determined the direction of North Korean diplomatic activities.
This decision to turn away from the usual ‘diplomatic targets’ is largely driven by necessity. In the last two or three years, North Korean diplomacy has hit a wall in its interactions between Seoul, Washington and Beijing ? or, at least, this is how North Korean diplomats are likely to see the situation.
Better relations with Washington has always been a major long-term goal in Pyongyang. Most North Korean top decision makers have seen Washington not only as a mortal threat, but also as a valuable source of aid and, potentially, trade. However, American officials have made it very clear over the last six years that concessions are not in the offing, until substantial progress is made in dealing with the nuclear issue. The latter option is not going seriously considered in Pyongyang because the North’s leaders see nuclear weapons as the only guarantee of their political and physical survival, and as a crucial source of diplomatic power. So, the result is a stalemate.
It is more difficult to ascertain who is responsible for the ongoing crisis in relations between North and South Korea. It seems that the South Korean government is not particularly flexible and is quite unwilling to provide North Koreans with the concessions that they wish to receive. However, it seems that the North Korean side is also very suspicious about the current centre-right government of Park Geun-hye. North Korea seems not to be eager to exploit opportunities to improve relations with Seoul. It appears that North Korean decision makers have decided that good relations with South Korea would be either impossible or undesirable so long as South Korean conservatives remain in control of the blue house.
At first glance, it seems that relations between Pyongyang and Beijing must be less problematic, but this is not actually the case. Compared to its predecessors, the new Beijing administration of Xi Jinping seems to be more critical of North Korea, but it still remains willing to provide it with a substantial amount of aid and preferential trade. China needs a stable North Korea. However, such feelings are not reciprocated by North Korea’s leadership, who increasingly worry about trade and the steadily growing economic dependency of North Korea on China. Currently, China controls some three-quarters of North Korea’s foreign trade, and it appears that North Korea’s decision makers are afraid that one day China will try to transform their economic influence into political leverage ? something that the deeply nationalistic North Korean leadership is deeply afraid of.
Perhaps, initially the Kim Jong Un government hoped that the old tactics of manufacturing an artificial crisis would help make South Korea and the United States more willing to make concessions. This might be the reason behind the unusual display of the verbal bellicosity in the spring of 2013. However, these spectacular outbursts of bellicose chest-beating produced little if any results. Obviously, the North Korean leadership is now engaged in uneasy search of new partners in Europe, Russia and Japan.
It is not going to be easy: Kang Sok-ju’s mission now faces some significant problems in Europe. The European economy is not in good shape nowadays, so the Europeans are unlikely to be especially generous with aid, of when we consider North Korea’s notorious reputation as an aid recipient. Trade with Europe might be a good idea in theory, but in practice, great geographical distances and certain economic incompatibilities would probably prevent a boom in trade between North Korea and Europe from happening. Nonetheless, the North Korean government is doing what it can to find alternatives and to steer their foreign policy away from the roots that they have been stuck to for many years.