North Korea tries to improve image amid uncertainty

By Zhao Lixin Source:Global Times Published: 2018/11/11 12:58:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT


A Chinese delegation of artists led by Culture and Tourism Minister Luo Shugang visited North Korea from November 2 to 5 at the invitation of the country's Ministry of Culture. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was impressed after watching a combined performance by artists from China and North Korea on November 3 and noted that "the traditional amity between North Korea and China, which has overcome the numerous storms of history, will flourish and develop even more moving forward, and we have been made certain of its bright future".

Given the friendship between Beijing and Pyongyang, communication and visit between art groups from both sides are supposed to be ordinary events.

But going by the situation North Korea is in, and the fact that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is now at a critical juncture, the trip is steeped in symbolism.

China is willing to maintain political and cultural exchanges with North Korea so as to encourage and help the country return to the international community. Besides, Beijing also recognizes Pyongyang's efforts in its phased denuclearization. North Korea has the intention to learn from China's experience of reform and opening-up, treating its neighbor as a role model to some extent.

In response to the needs of North Korea, books on the 40-year history of China's reform and opening-up are being translated into Korean. Meanwhile, a large number of North Korean officials are taking turns to visit and study in Chinese cities. In the near future, there might be more cultural exchanges and tourism-related activities between the two countries. But it is too early to say that the Chinese delegation's tour is a sign of China-North Korea honeymoon or a move to pave way for Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Pyongyang.

For North Korea, inviting Chinese artists is not unusual, but a part of Pyongyang's systematic project to reshape its new image. The attempt began with the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

In major cities of North Korea, slogans promoting militarism and development of nuclear weapons and the economy have been partly replaced by those advocating the country's five-year economic plan. Most anti-US posters have been erased. In Pyongyang, more places are now accessible to foreigners.

This year, Kim's military inspections have come down significantly. There has only been once since August. At the same time, his visits to factories, farms and schools have risen. Kim is trying to build an image of a leader who attaches more importance to people's daily lives and comforts. In this sense, he is being pragmatic.

This year North Korea demolished Punggye-ri nuclear test site, closed Dongchang-ni satellite launch station, held a historic summit with US President Donald Trump, and announced a joint bid with South Korea to host the 2032 Olympics. And then there is intense speculation in the international media over Kim's possible visit to Moscow.

Over the past 15 years, North Korea had been confronting the international community as a hardliner. But today, the country has realized that it can only participate in regional and global affairs after going soft and striking a compromise.

For the moment, Pyongyang is feeling less lonely, but more anxious. There has been no date set for a second North Korea-US summit. Washington has shown no sign of lifting or reducing economic sanctions against North Korea, making Pyongyang a little impatient.

On November 1, reports quoted Kim as saying that "the hostile forces are foolishly keen on vicious sanctions to stand in our way toward the promotion of people's well-being and development and to lead us to change and submission".

One day later, North Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Pyongyang could revert to its parallel development if the US doesn't lift sanctions.

Thanks to the thaw on the Korean Peninsula this year, Pyongyang's remarks did not lead to a global shock. Most observers believe those statements are meant to pressure Washington into making substantial concessions in future talks.

Obviously, the US wants to continue dominating Korean Peninsula affairs. Washington has sent a signal - it won't turn a blind eye to the changes North Korea is bringing, but those changes are far from enough.

The author is professor and director of the School of International Politics, Institute of Politics and Public Management, Yanbian University.

Newspaper headline: NK tries to improve image amid uncertainty

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