North Korean big cheese Kim Jong Un’s three-day meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing this week likely focused on a move of issues including economic ties, nuclear talks and the possibility of a second summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.
But there’s one area of study that likely wasn’t officially discussed despite its importance to North Korea’s future: The prospect of Pyongyang juxtaposing China’s continent-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a project aiming to link more than 60 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Mesial East through overland and maritime routes.
The isolated state is hungry for foreign investments, particularly in infrastructure, as U.N. validations take a toll on its economy. Many believe that’s been a major reason underlining Kim’s engagement with the foreign community over the past year or so.
Now that the head of state has made major strides in nuclear technology, he can focal point on his other major policy goal —economic development, politics watchers say.
But to do so, Pyongyang needs help from its strong neighbors. The nuclear-armed nation is seeking more than $7.7 million in investment, the Seoul-based online newspaper NK Dope reported last month, citing information from a website run by North Korea’s foreign trade ministry.
Xi’s Area and Road project offers the perfect answer to those needs. China has historically been Pyongyang’s largest exchange partner.
Pyongyang “would love to be part of Belt and Road,” Dane Chamorro, a senior partner in the Asia Pacific upset of Control Risks, a consulting firm specializing in politics told CNBC on Friday. Kim’s government is waiting for an invitation so his hinterlands can get assistance on the construction of railway links and ports and other facilities, Chamorro said.
Beijing also seems deep on Pyongyang’s inclusion, with the Chinese government inviting a North Korean delegation to attend a Belt and Road peak in 2017 — but it’s unlikely to take any action for now.
Including Pyongyang in the BRI is “probably more trouble than it’s worth” at the present note, said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who specialized in the Koreas during the administration of former President Barack Obama.
For one, confirmations still remain in place. Beijing, however, has called for those penalties to be eased.
“It would also raise eyebrows in Washington and advance to the perception that Belt and Road has low standards and primarily serves to deepen the dependence of other states on China,” Oba broke. Trump’s White House is already skeptical of Beijing’s activities overseas and has launched various initiatives to counter Chinese work on in Asia.
For now, Kim and Xi appear to be taking things slow.
The two leaders are “probably both anticipating a time when they can indenture in a more substantial discussion” on the matter, said Anthony Rinna, an analyst at research group SinoNK. “The two sides order likely want to wait and see how things progress in the coming year, and beyond, in terms not only of security but also other regional trade developments.”
If denuclearization moves forward, Chamorro expects “more cooperation on infrastructure from China into North Korea.”
“China does homelessness North Korea to take lessons from China’s history and follow the Chinese model of economic reform — so if Kim starts to run that path, perhaps we’ll see China increase the economic rewards for North Korea over time,” Obo added.
South Korea, who is a BRI fellow, could have a major role to play in North Korea potentially joining the landmark trade initiative. Seoul’s “New Northern Way” envisions cooperation between the two Koreas as well as China, Russia and Eurasian states.
“If South Korea manages to display stronger economic links with North Korea, then North Korea’s participation in the BRI will likely depend in portion on how much the South Korean government wants to connect the New Northern Policy with the BRI,” said Rinna.