In early January 2019, the North Korean leader traveled to Beijing to meet with President Xi Jinping. The two leaders discussed the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and cooperation between their two countries.
It is likely that the issue of North Korean participation in the BRI was also discussed.
New infrastructure for Pyongyang
In 2018, Pyongyang and Seoul agreed to work together to create new corridors and strengthen their trade. This initiative responds to a white paper entitled “New Korean Peninsula Economic Map”, prepared by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. For this initiative to be successful, greater connectivity between North Korea and its other neighbors: China and Russia is required. Large investment in North Korean infrastructure is also needed. Infrastructure has not been modernized because of the economic sanctions imposed on Pyongyang.
According to a study prepared by Citibank, the modernization of North Korea’s transportation and energy infrastructure would require nearly $ 63 billion.
The creation of new rail lines, including high-speed lines is a priority project for the North Korean leader. Seoul has already said that South Korea could partly finance some projects.
The BRI would be the most appropriate format for developing these infrastructure projects and strengthening cooperation between North Korea and its neighbors.
However, the integration of North Korea into the BRI requires the crossing of several obstacles, the first one being the economic sanctions against Pyongyang. The North Korean regime suffers from the imposition of sanctions imposed by the international community following the first nuclear tests carried out in 2006. Without the lifting of these sanctions, North Korea will hardly be able to join the BRI which requires smooth exchanges.
Sanctions against Pyongyang could be lifted as the country is improving relations with Washington. The second meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, expected to take place in Danang, Vietnam, could lead to a gradual normalization of relations between Pyongyang and the world community.
Several observers note that an integration of North Korea into the BRI could partly de-legitimize the Chinese project and reinforce the misconception that the BRI would only serve to strengthen Chinese influence in Asia. North Korea’s governance problems may also hurt the overall image of the BRI
A goal shared by all North Korea’s neighbors
The opening of North Korea and its integration into regional networks, including the BRI, are some objectives shared by all North East Asian states.
First of all, for Seoul this integration would have many advantages. North Korea’s participation in the BRI would lead to the rapid modernization of its infrastructure. Its dilapidated infrastructure is often seen as one of the obstacles to a possible Korean peninsula reunification. The opening of new railway lines connecting the two Koreas would also give Seoul access to the Eurasian rail network which would allow its companies to export to Europe using rail transportation.
The BRI connectivity projects in North Korea would have several benefits for Beijing. First, from a political point of view, Chinese and foreign investments in North Korea would consolidate the economic reforms conducted in this country, and prevent a possible collapse of the North Korean regime (a forecast that had been envisaged by the international community) and thus China would avoid a chaotic situation at its doors.
In addition, the implementation of BRI projects in North Korea, particularly in infrastructure, could give a new impetus to the provinces of North East China (Dongbei, or the former Manchuria). Despite the revitalization plans put in place fifteen years ago, this region is still struggling to keep pace with the economic development of other Chinese regions. Implementing BRI projects across the border in North Korea would provide new opportunities for Dongbei.
For its part, Russia hopes to develop for several years its Far East region and especially the region of Vladivostok. Pyongyang’s participation in the BRI would breathe new life into the Russian port, which could become a major maritime hub for future special economic zones on the Sino-Korean border
Japan would also welcome BRI projects in North Korea. First, although it has not formally joined the BRI, Japan is involved in the new silk routes, through some of its companies and since September 2018 Japan has been part to a railway cooperation committee with China. Pyongyang’s participation in the BRI could also reassure Tokyo about the real efforts of North Korea to adopt a good neighbor policy. By increasing the interdependence between Pyongyang and its neighbors, the risks of tensions in Northeast Asia are diminishing.
Pyongyang’s participation in the BRI may not be relevant today. But this question may arise quite soon as Pyongyang is opening up to the world. The BRI will provide the right conditions to Pyongyang to conduct further reforms, as well as create a dynamic of integration in North East Asia.