A sign of change in Pyongyang?

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A sign of change in Pyongyang?

Jang Song-thaek, uncle by marriage to North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un and second in Pyongyang’s power hierarchy, has been in China since Monday to draw further aid and investment from North Korea’s closest ally. Leading a high-level entourage, Jang signed an agreement with China’s commerce minister, Chen Deming, to accelerate joint development of economic zones in Hwanggumpyong and Rason and also toured industrial complexes in northeastern Chinese provinces bordering North Korea.

There is speculation that North Korea asked for more than $1 billion in new funding from China during the highest-ranking visit from Pyongyang since Kim Jong-un took over. Jang’s business trip to China - on top of news from Pyongyang that it has been easing rigid state control on food distribution and allowed greater autonomy in industrial output and collective farming - further suggests that the reclusive country is intent on salvaging its crumbling economy and letting the world know about its efforts.

North Korea’s renewed efforts to revive its economy have been gathering attention. The efforts may be a sign of change in the isolated state as it tries to improve ties with the rest of the world. Kim Jong-il also attempted to reform the chronically debilitated economy but retreated in fear of losing his grip on society.

The international community has been continuously disappointed by the North’s past reform efforts. But observers believe this time may be different. This series of bold and unabashed actions by the younger Kim is fanning expectations around the world about the North’s new direction.

Pyongyang so far has not taken any decisive action that would suggest changes in foreign policy since Kim Jong-il’s death in December. And it remains as protective as ever of its nuclear program. But the North’s campaign to revive the economy cannot move forward without international assistance and a lifting of trade sanctions. So, the nuclear problem must be resolved. Having learned from past flops, Pyongyang is likely well aware that its efforts will have little impact without nuclear policy reform.

Jang is expected to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao and may deliver Pyongyang’s official position on nuclear and other pending issues under the new leadership.

We will have to watch closely to see whether North Korea’s economic steps will lead to more fundamental changes in the country’s system of governance. Should positive changes come, we should be as ready to respond as the rest of the international community.

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