Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, May 21, 2012

North Korea in Indonesia: Something Terrible This Way Come?

Last week, President of North Korea Kim Yong Nam visited Indonesia, officially with the purpose of hoping to drum up investment from Indonesia.

Such a trip, however, must be seen under the backdrop of several recent strategic developments that have been very detrimental to North Korea's position.

For the North Koreans, this year has already started badly. First, they botched their rocket launch. Originally, it was hoped that the launch would be a harbinger of a glorious new era under Kim Jong Un while continuing his father's legacy. The launch, however, was a disaster, enraging everyone, even China (there's no way in hell this article could be published, especially in Global Times, without any official approval -- China rarely criticizes North Korea, even with a mild rebuke, regardless how idiotic North Korea acts).

In turn, this lead to another diplomatic headache, another tit-for-tat, where North Korea signaled its displeasure by arresting Chinese fishermen. How this works out in the end will remain to be seen, but this incident shows how angry North Korea is with its patron and at the same time, this "biting the hand that feeds it" policy will probably cause more estrangement, especially from China's side..

Another problem for North Korea is that the President of Myanmar, after having met the President of South Korea, decided to stop purchasing arms from North Korea. From Myanmar's perspective, now that it's reestablishing a relationship with the United States, it is a logical next step to build closer ties to South Korea, especially with South Korea investing all over the place in Southeast Asia. The impoverished Myanmar, of course, would love to have a slice of that South Korean investment.

In my view, a salient question is: what can Indonesia do to help North Korea? While Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa downplayed North Korea's belligerence, arguing that it boiled down to misunderstandings, such an interpretation is questionable at best, as it is unclear if Pyongyang really wants to be a productive and cooperative member of the international community. It certainly rings hollow in Seoul and Washington. Moreover, unlike Myanmar, there does not seem any domestic politics changes that would provide opening for Indonesia to help "democratize" North Korea in ways similar to Myanmar nowadays.

North Korea's latest move is likely a product of two motives. On the one hand, it is probably trying to avoid total isolation. Indonesia is one of the very few countries that still maintain cordial relations with North Korea, a relationship that dates back to the Sukarno era; deepening these ties might make North Korea feel less alone and insecure. In addition, considering the cordial relationship that Indonesia has with both China and South Korea, Pyongyang likely wants to use Indonesia to gauge the reactions of both Beijing and Seoul, two regional powers that sit right on North Korea's doorstep and profoundly impact its national security.

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