With the increase of North Korea's dependency on China, Pyongyang feels the growing need to exert its independence, Rüdiger Frank tells DW. Despite its malevolence, Pyongyang is very much interested in economic growth.
DW: Regarding the recent developments in North Korea, for example, the latest nuclear test and threats of war against the US and South Korea, China has agreed to sanctions against the country in the UN Security Council. But China was always seen as Pyongyang's protective partner. North Korea reacted with a further provocation – by kidnapping Chinese fishermen and then releasing them shortly before Beijing was due to receive a high ranking delegation from the country. How should we interpret North Korea's actions, being that they are so dependent on China?
Rüdiger Frank: That is exactly why North Korea is doing this - because its dependency on China is growing, it feels the need to gain more political autonomy. Because the same rules count for every country: there are no permanent friendships, there are only permanent interests. North Korea's interest is to maintain its independence and its autonomy.
Two weeks ago, I was told in North Korea that the North feels betrayed from China because China agreed to sanctions at the UN Security Council. So that has cast a shadow over their ties. They will try to mend it quickly, but at the moment North Korea wants to show its disapproval toward China.
What meaning does the North Korean delegation's trip to China have?
Choe Ryong Hae [head of the military politburo] is apparently very close to Kim Jong Un and he is also someone who is at the top of the ranks of the country's hierarchy. Him going to China is potentially big gesture.
I think they will meet to try and repair the damage in their relations. It will also be about convincing Beijing that Pyongyang does not intend on provoking a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula. It might also be about preparing Kim Jong Un's first state visit to China. Despite the fact that he assumed power a year and a half ago, Kim Jong Un has not yet left the country. So it is high time for him to do so and China would be the first destination for such a trip.
Last but not least, one should not forget that Kim Jong Un is very much interested in economic reform and sees China as a model for that. I can imagine Choe Ryong Hae will also talk economic cooperation in Beijing. I am certain the visit will be more about cooperation than confrontation.
How would you describe economic ties between North Korea and China?
It is clear that North Korea's economy is increasingly dominated by the Chinese - in all possible areas, from small ventures to mining. Chinese companies are very dynamic and also very aggressive. And because of that, they surely cross the line here and there.
North Korea's economy is a centrally planned one. That means that private enterprises are allowed, but, especially if it is on a large scale, they have to go through the central economy. In China, many business people are 100-percent profit oriented and so opinions vary on how business should work. I believe China is geared toward maximizing profits, while in North Korea it is about politics. So aside from economic cooperation and also profits, the North is interested in realizing political goals. And both of these models can clash at times.
Where does North Korea see its future economy? What kind of observations did you make on your last trip there?
The country's leadership and Kim Jong Un are mainly concerned with keeping the country stable - both domestically and also with regards to international ties. Kim Jong Un has said he wants to improve the living standard of his people. That means he wants more food and more products for consumption to be produced. He wants to expand trade.
But all of that is diametrically opposed to the country's current system. So it means that North Korea will sooner or later have to introduce political reform as well. I think they will look to China as a model. They are trying to introduce free market elements while at the same time holding on to the one party system.
There has been a real explosion in commercial activity in North Korea - not only in the capital, but in provincial cities and in the country side. I even saw people wearing jeans. I was able to speak to people more openly on this last trip than ever before. They did not run away, as they usually do when approached by a foreigner. Such things were unthinkable before. There are more and more mobile telephones and tablet computers nowadays.
The authorities are still continuing to keep the tightest security. But foreigners are now allowed to carry their mobile telephones with them and that means that in places close to the border, such as Kaesong, they have contact with the rest of the world through the South Korean networks. The government has accepted that.
There are a number of signs that North Korea is changing. I also have the impression that the amount of propaganda has decreased somewhat. And the propaganda looks different, too. The slogans are much less flamboyant than before. There are more restaurants and stores. Now there is a restaurant or store just about every 30 or 40 meters in Pyongyang. That implicates that the people have money to spend. And it looks like the infrastructure is being developed for that.
Dr. Rüdiger Frank is the chair of the East Asian Economy and Society at Vienna University and also gives lectures at universities in Seoul. His last trip to North Korea was two weeks ago.
Interview was conducted by Jun Yan