Kim conundrum

Solving The North Korean Puzzle

Kim Jong Un
North Korea is slowing looking outwards to the world.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    North Korea remains for the most part cut off from the world, but Germany has become a welcome guest in the hermit state, where the country’s advice is sought on how to open up to foreign investment. Now that the idea of reunification with South Korea has been floated, investors may be able to start considering a country that has long been a no-go. Opening up of North Korea could hopefully lead to the country addressing its woeful human rights record too.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • In September, North Korea’s foreign minister appeared at the United Nations and said reunification of North and South Korea could be possible.
    • In October, North Korea for the first time acknowledged the existence of labor camps in the country.
    • A South Korean and German commission will meet to discuss foreign-policy consequences of possible reunification.
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  • Audio

    Audio

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Are you eager to get involved in new markets? Then point your early-warning systems in the direction of North Korea, a backward country with 20 million inhabitants and huge mineral resources. 

When German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrived Friday in the South Korean capital Seoul, he had a surprise in his briefcase – the first meeting of a South-Korean and German commission to discuss foreign-policy consequences of possible reunification.

Shortly before that, the former state secretary at the finance ministry, Hartmut Koschyk, was received in North Korea with high honors as chairman of the German-Korean parliamentary group.

How did this come to be?

In 2011, the German-speaking Kim Jong-un, formerly a pupil at a Swiss boarding school, appeared in public shortly after taking office as supreme leader of North Korea, and gave relatively open speeches.

In 2012, he appeared in public with the woman he had recently married, and then he rehabilitated his father’s cook, who had fled the country.

Germany can play an important role in Korea as an advisor to both sides.

Kim also has a hobby, basketball, and he hosted the flamboyant former NBA star Dennis Rodman, even though he represents state enemy number one, the U.S.

Most recently, the dictator stayed out of public sight for more than 40 days because of a reported injury and ill health. The fact that he could do that not only signals normalcy but also demonstrates the man is sitting securely in power.

So a new era may be dawning. On Sept. 28, North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Su-yong declared at the United Nations that reunification of North and South Korea could be possible by way of a federation. It caused a veritable sensation, since no North Korean foreign minister had participated in a U.N. conference in the last 15 years – and there had never been a single word about reunification before.

At the beginning of October, Hwang Pyong-so, the number two after Kim, traveled to Seoul for talks. His visit was called “unparalleled” even in South Korea.

Then on Oct. 7, representatives of North Korea reported to the U.N. about the human-rights situation in North Korea. For the first time, government officials acknowledged the existence of labor camps and that the human-rights situation is “very inadequate” and “in need of improvement.”

This might have something to do with the fact that Kin Jong-un is currently threatened with a summons from the International Court of Justice in The Hague. But other dictators have reacted more stubbornly to that possibility.

In the meantime, North Koreans are looking for help from Germany in drawing up a investment law that international investors would find convincing. A high-ranking German economic delegation is scheduled to visit North Korea next year. Such interaction, previously inconceivable, is now a possibility.

Germany can play an important role in Korea as an advisor to both sides. But Germans do not want to, and cannot, risk a solo undertaking, not even a European one, in their involvement with North Korea. That might anger Pyongyang – but North Korea’s strategy of playing one Western country against another has been counterproductive for too long.

 

To contact the author: sieren@handelsblatt.com.

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