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EU-Asia Centre Visit to DPRK

12 September 2014

An EU-Asia Centre (EAC) delegation including Fraser Cameron (Director), Isabel Hilton and David Pilling (Senior Advisors) visited the DPRK from 6-10 September at the invitation of the Korea Institute for Peace and Disarmament (IPD).

The Director General of KIP (Ma Tung Hui) said this was the first with an EU-level think tank. He hoped the two institutes would develop a common work programme that could include a multi-national seminar on NE Asia security.

The DPRK was keen to improve relations with the EU not least to help it with its reform efforts at what it called new economic management. (The words “reform” and “market economy” are still near-taboo in official circles.) The economy was in dire straits, partly due to US sanctions, and although some reforms had been introduced e.g. farmers markets, the country was still unable to feed itself and had to rely on food aid. The government was thus seeking to improve economic management in order to boost economic growth. The EAC delegation briefed Mr Ma on latest developments in the EU – leadership changes, the economic situation and the conflict with Russia over Ukraine.

On inter-Korea relations Mr Ma said that the positions were well known. There had been nothing new in President Park’s Dresden speech. The constant US-ROK military exercises were a clear threat to the DPRK which was forced to take counter-measures.  He did not foresee any changes in the near future. The DPRK had put forward sensible proposals for a confederation as a way to ultimate reunification of the two Koreas. But the South Koreans had failed to build on the 2002 agreement, with relations having deteriorated significantly after the election of Li Myung-bak. As the years passed unification would be more and more difficult.  

On NE Asia security matters he said it was complicated. Relations with China were ‘sometimes difficult’ but that was normal between neighbours. Russia was not mentioned although we heard there had been some attempt to improve relations recently. Japan was ‘over-concerned about the abductee issue’ when it should be looking to deepen economic cooperation. The US was constantly interfering and encouraging the ROK puppets to take a tough line towards the DPRK.

The Centre also met with Hwang Ik Hwan (Director IPD) who maintained that Washington was to blame for the current impasse due to the conditionality for lifting sanctions. The six party talks were unlikely to re-start in the near future. He hoped there could be a change in the attitude of Japan as there had been some progress on the abductee question.

On China he admitted that it was unusual for Xi to meet Park twice before Kim. But China was a sovereign country and could do what it wished. The DPRK would not change its policies because of any Chinese pressure. Each country had to develop its own political and economic system.

At the MFA the Centre delegation met Kyong Hak Min, the Deputy Director for Europe.  He said that the DPRK was keen to develop closer ties with the EU as it was ‘an important independent power in a multi-polar world’. There were many potential areas of cooperation from security to economic issues and even human rights. But although diplomatic relations had been established in 2001 there was still no agreement on opening missions in Brussels/Pyongyang. It was important to increase mutual understanding even though the two political systems were very different. He hoped the EAC/EU would invite DPRK officials and researchers on study tours and to conferences. There was also a need for more training of DPRK experts in the EU on subjects such as management, special economic zones, tourism and customs procedures.

On human rights he said the EU should stop ‘insulting the DPRK’ by following the US practice of trying to destroy the political system. The EU engaged in hypocrisy and double standards on human rights.

The Centre delegation also met Kim Chol, Director of the Economic Institute of the Academy of Social Sciences (and Li Sung Chon, responsible for international cooperation). He said that the Korean Workers Party decided policy (seven year plans) and the government implemented it. The policy was not to reveal any statistics although he did say that the GDP per head in 2011 had reached $905 per head. The DPRK preferred a quasi-autarkic policy of self-reliance but understood that it needed some cooperation with the outside world.  It had few natural resources and no oil. There was a trend to more state control although individual enterprises had limited freedom to produce and sell surplus goods. The profits could then be paid in extra wages or invested in new plant. The coal and electricity sectors were trail blazers in this regard. The special economic zones, most of which had just been established last year, were evidence of a ‘one country-two systems’ approach to economic policy.

The DPRK had no plans to join WTO or the IMF/World Bank. It now had observer status at the ADB but would take many years to fulfil the conditions for membership.

Sanctions were a serious burden on the economy.

In a meeting with resident EU diplomats they confirmed the difficulty of getting accurate basic economic statistics. While the use of the word ‘reform’ was taboo the regime was seeking new ideas and training for the younger generation of officials in essentially how to run a market economy. They were looking to the EU for advice and support. There was also a discussion about the merits of opening an EU delegation in Pyongyang and a reciprocal DPRK mission in Brussels.