A poor country triples its trade volume in six years. Exports to its main partner soar fivefold. This is a rare feat for a nation not blessed with oil; rarer still for a country under UN Security Council sanctions, tightened three times during the same trade spurt.
We are talking of North Korea, believe it or not. Unbelievers appear to include Kim Jong Un. When the young leader brutally purged his uncle-mentor, Jang Song Thaek, in December the charge sheet included “selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices”.
China does receive some (not all) North Korean minerals cheap, since no one else will buy. But to be fair, on Jang’s watch – he oversaw trade with China – an economy still poorer on most indicators than when Moscow pulled the plug in 1991 began to grasp one big nettle: how to raise exports. Pyongyang issues no numbers; when they do that, we will know for sure reform is under way. But its partners’ recent trade statistics tell a striking story.
North Korea has never traded much, and has always run a deficit. When the USSR collapsed, China was left as its main partner-cum-sponsor. For many years their trade was more like aid. In the late 1990s the value of imports from China averaged about $500m a year – though often they were not paid for. Pyongyang exported next to nothing in return. The debts mounted, as did Chinese impatience. The deficit rose throughout the subsequent decade, reaching $1.3bn in 2008 – twice the level of Pyongyang’s exports.
In 2012 South Korean news agency Yonhap noted a startling change. In just four years, starting in 2007, the value of trade had almost tripled to $5.6bn. At the same time, it became less one-sided; North Korea’s exports more than quadrupled to $2.5bn. That is still peanuts by regional and global standards, and the deficit narrowed rather than disappearing entirely. But it began to look like serious, reciprocal trade. The progress continues, if no longer at quite such a clip. Latest Chinese customs statistics show that North Korean exports to China in 2013 rose 17 per cent to nearly $3bn, against imports of $3.6bn.
China apart, North Korea has, or had, only one crucial partner: South Korea: Pyongyang’s trade with the rest of the world in 2012 totalled less than $800m, according to Seoul’s Bank of Korea. In 2007 after a decade of “sunshine”, the engagement pursued by two liberal presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, inter-Korean trade reached $1.8bn, snapping at China’s heels. South Korea briefly became the North’s biggest export market as the joint venture Kaesong Industrial Complex, in the North but near to Seoul, grew.
Larger plans were afoot. In 2007, at the second North-South summit, accords were signed for co-operation on shipbuilding, mining, transport and more. A plethora of new joint committees started work quickly to implement all this. For once the Koreas talked business, not politics.
Nothing came of it. At the end of that year, South Koreans elected as president Lee Myung-bak, who insisted the North must first give up nuclear weapons. The agreements were aborted and a downward spiral began. In May 2010, after the sinking of a South Korean warship, Mr Lee banned all inter-Korean trade and all investment except at Kaesong.
That zone alone still generated record North-South trade of $2bn in 2012. Meanwhile trade between China and North Korea leapt ahead. Last April, Mr Kim sabotaged Kaesong, pulling out the North’s workers. It reopened in September but the closure meant inter-Korean trade fell 42 per cent in 2013 to $1.1bn: an eight-year low, and barely one-sixth the value of trade with China.
North Korea is a risky place to do business, for Chinese as for others. Yet well-publicised horror stories may mislead. The numbers show that many Chinese companies have found a way to navigate the obstacles and make money. They would not be there otherwise.
Beijing’s gain is Seoul’s loss. Stillborn state-run projects aside, in the sunshine era a few bold companies from the South vied with China to do business in North Korea. Outside Kaesong they all lost their shirts. Yet it was not Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father and predecessor, but Mr Lee who did for them. The sectors affected (mining above all) mourn the chances lost, but politicians are in denial. In January President Park Geun-hye told South Koreans to prepare for reunification, which she bizarrely called a “jackpot”. But the Koreas can barely even agree to hold family reunions – the first in four years began this week – much less recoup ground lost under Mr Lee, whose trade ban remains in force.
Pyongyang always tries to play off its interlocutors against one another. Conceivably, the mercurial Mr Kim might suddenly try to ditch China and re-embrace South Korea. But Beijing will not let him and the cautious Ms Park would not have him. Uncle Jang’s men may have fallen from favour but the trade ties he built will last. Seoul blew its chance. North Korea’s future now lies with China.
The writer is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University
信不信由你，我们是在说朝鲜。不相信的人里似乎也包括金正恩(Kim Jong Un)。当这位年轻领导人于去年12月无情地铲除他的姑父兼导师张成泽(Jang Song Thaek)时，判决书中所列的罪行包括“廉价出售国家宝贵资源。”
除了中国，朝鲜——这里或许应该说曾经——只剩下一个重要的贸易伙伴：韩国。据韩国央行(Bank of Korea)统计，2012年朝鲜与中韩以外地区的贸易额不到8亿美元。2007年，在两位自由派韩国总统金大中(Kim Dae-jung)和卢武铉(Roh Moo-hyun)推行对朝“阳光政策”（Sunshine，指1998-2008年期间韩国实行与韩鲜增进接触的政策——译者注）10年后，朝韩贸易额达到18亿美元，直追朝中贸易额。随着双方合作建设的开城工业园区(Kaesong Industrial Complex)不断发展，韩国一度成为朝鲜最大的出口市场。开城工业园地处朝鲜，但离首尔很近。
中国得利，韩国就受损。除流产的国有项目之外，在阳光政策时期，曾有少数大胆的韩国企业在朝经商、与中国企业竞争。除开城之外，它们在朝鲜其他地方的生意全都血本无归。然而，导致这种结果的并非金正日(Kim Jong Il)——朝鲜现任领导人的父亲和前任，而是李明博。受到禁令影响的行业（采矿业首当其冲）叹惜失去了多少机会，但政客们拒不承认。今年1月，韩国总统朴槿惠(Park Geun-hye)告诉韩国民众为半岛统一做好准备，她用了个怪异的说法，称统一能带来“巨大利益”(jackpot)。但就连离散家属团聚问题，朝韩双方都仅能勉强达成共识（近日举行的朝韩离散家属团聚活动是4年来的首次），收复李明博时代所失去“阵地”这个问题就更别提了，他下达的贸易禁令如今也仍然有效。
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