[VIEWPOINT]North Korea has its own Red scareRecently North Korea and China decided to cancel reciprocal visa waivers for trips of less than six months between the two countries, something that had been in effect for 57 years, since full diplomatic relations were established in October 1949. North Korea also ordered people who hold a Chinese passport and could travel to North Korea freely to obtain a visa, too.
It is noteworthy that North Korea moved first and China followed.
The visa waiver had been possible because of the special relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the North Korean Workers’ Party.
Therefore, we wonder if it means there will be a change in the special relationship between the two parties.
Also, it is strange that the self-proclaimed socialist brothers, China and North Korea, have decided to demand visas from each other’s citizens. This implies that the back side of the two countries’ relations is complicated.
First of all, there is a big disparity in economic relations between the two countries.
North Korea’s reliance on China has increased. Last year, 40 percent of North Korea’s total trade volume was with China. And the North’s trade deficit with China has grown to $500 million.
As a result of economic sanctions imposed by the United States and Japan, the North’s economic dependency on Chinese capital has gotten heavier.
In 2004, the number of Chinese businessmen who visited Pyongyang for investment and trade was more than 3,000. It is estimated that the number would be more than 10,000 if Chinese tourists and peddlers who carry bundles of merchandise through the border between China and North Korea were included.
Since the scope of economic cooperation has expanded to investment in social overhead capital from simple toil processing, such as the development of port facilities in Najin and Musan iron ore mines, it is said that virtually all places in North Korea are visited by Chinese businessmen.
There is even a rumor that a Chinatown will be built in Heungnam, where there was one during the Japanese occupation period.
At the tourist resorts and stores in Pyongyang, Chinese is spoken without hesitation and the Chinese yuan is freely used.
Last week, I visited Dandong, China and counted 30 vehicles passing the North Korea-China Friendship Bridge over a one-hour period.
From 7 a.m. ’til 7 p.m., large trucks carrying Chinese goods entered North Korea continuously.
There was news that the construction of a new bridge connecting Dandong with the southern part of Sinuiju would begin soon. I couldn’t help but worry that North Korea would become the fourth northern province of China.
The rush of Chinese capital into North Korea started in 2003. Perhaps the North Korean authorities felt it necessary to control that.
Although the two countries are bound by a strong socialist alliance, the North’s economic subordination to China is not desirable for the development of North Korea’s so-called Juche, or self-sufficient, economy. Therefore, it seems that the North has taken a self-protection measure by restraining the free travel of personnel.
North Korea’s rejection of both Chinese-style reform and the open-door policy was one of the reasons behind the decision to cancel the visa waiver.
Experts say that some good things could come out of expanded economic cooperation between North Korea and China, as both economies would grow together.
As close economic exchanges between the two provide an opportunity for the North to expand its contacts with the outside world, there are people who hope that economic exchanges might help North Korea accommodate a Chinese style open-door policy.
However, the North Korean leadership is determined not to accommodate the Chinese style policy because its territory is too narrow.
Especially, North Korea worries that if contact with China is expanded, it will be unavoidable for the North to follow Chinese-style reform, which could threaten its political system.
The wave of capitalist influence, such as videotapes smuggled into the North, is a headache for the government as it tries to maintain its political system.
In other words, the North is in the grip of uneasiness that its system can be shaken if it enjoys the fruit of expanded economic cooperation with China.
The North seems to have decided that it must apply the same rule to China as it has to Western countries.
Accordingly, the methods of economic cooperation between the two will change.
It is likely that the North will seek a new pattern of economic cooperation with China that can minimize the flow of people into North Korea but bring practical profits through a couple of large-scale economic transactions. While keeping the Chinese people from striding into North Korea, the North may promote cooperation between major trading centers.
* The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Nam Sung-wook