Belt and Road Interview Series: Dr. Victor Teo on the Korean Peninsula
In light of the forthcoming Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Victor Teo. In the interview, we speak with Dr. Teo about the potential synergies of linking up the Korean Peninsula with the Belt and Road Initiative, revitalising China's rust belt as well as discussing prospects for the looming summit. Victor Teo is Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong and Academic Research Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and Visiting Scholar at Harvard Law School. His research interests lie in the International Relations of Asia-Pacific with particular emphasis on Sino-Japanese Relations and North Korean affairs.
In what way does the North Korea conflict impact Belt and Road (BRI) development in the region?
Victor Teo: The BRI has stimulated infrastructure projects in China’s neighboring countries – particularly in areas where there has been relatively lower levels of inward investments – such as Central Asia and South Asia. Even Southeast Asia with their relatively higher level of growth and investment as a whole has been keen to exploit this growth opportunity. The United States led bloc – notably Japan and India has naturally expressed reservations and have not been keen to uptake China’s offer for them to participate in the BRI initiative.
Meanwhile, North Korea (DPRK) has been a keen and quiet observer of the BRI. Pyongyang is interested in how it can actually benefit from the BRI, but at the same time perceive that any sort of economic program or cooperation should be subordinated to the larger goal of regime survival. In recent years, strategic priorities have seen North Korea dramatically raising the security stakes in East Asia through her nuclear brinksmanship and missile tests, stalling any sort of inroads the BRI might make to link North Korea with the Manchurian provinces of Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang, and further afield to Mongolia, the Russian Far East and South Korea.
Japan and South Korea seem thus far sidelined in BRI planning. How can BRI contribute to economic development in the region starting from the Korean Peninsula, for South and North respectively?
Victor Teo: North Korea’s geostrategic position makes her cooperation vital to the BRI in two important respects. With DPRK’s cooperation, Chinese BRI efforts could be harmonized with South Koreas “Eurasia Initiative” (EAI) – and this would provide the synergy for South Korea, North Korea and China’s Northeast provinces to be integrated further economically. The “backwardness” of Northeast China has largely been attributed to North Korea’s reluctance to commit to economic reforms and regional integration plans. If DPRK is agreeable, South Korea and China would help fund infrastructural investment in the DPRK, and assist in the construction of railway links on the Western (Pusan-Seoul-Shinuju-Dandong) and Eastern (Pusan-Wonsan-Chongjin-Tumangang-Khasan) side of the Korean Peninsula. These lines would connect South Korea to DPRK to China and Russia and onwards onto Europe.
"If DPRK is agreeable, South Korea and China would help fund infrastructural investment in the DPRK, and assist in the construction of railway links"
Needless to say, these would impact on the viability of the region as a manufacturing hub with North Korea cheap labour, Chinese factories and South Korean expertise. It would enable exports to be made using Rason Port to Japan and elsewhere – this would really help the North East three provinces and DPRK. The second aspect might be the Russian connection – we can see Russian energy supplies reaching not just the PRC, but also DPRK and ROK easily, with potential for onward export to Japan. These two aspects are just to start – there are many other possibilities.
How can companies in countries not fully integrated in BRI (Korea, Japan or US) benefit or get involved with BRI best?
Victor Teo: South Korea’s EAI is a double faceted strategy – it is an economic plan as well as a security plan. Linking ROK’s economy with DPRK would increase DPRK interdependence and reduce security deterioration in the future (regardless of whether the stimulus is from the North or South). Clearly Moon is moving in this direction, and has promised South Korean private investment if DPRK chooses to harmonize with the “Moonshine” policy. Japan might actually benefit most from this as if and when North Korea gets richer, it is likely to behave in a befitting manner towards Japan. Tokyo might also benefit by jumping on the BRI wagon and increasing economic cooperation and engagement with North and South Korea.
To be fair, North Korea would not treat Japan as her best friend, but the situation might still be better than what Japan has been experiencing the last decade or so. It is unlikely that DPRK would send missiles flying over the DPRK if Japan joins South Korea and China to assist the DPRK economically, and improve the livelihood of the North Korean people. For the United States – I think the government and firms are paying close attention – and given the way things are developing under the Trump administration, I would not be surprised if the US companies might come onboard in some capacity if it benefits them.
What might the repercussions of the Trump-Kim Summit be with regard to the stability in the region and China's role in it?
Victor Teo: This is an exceedingly hard question to answer before the Summit. If I had to venture a guess, I think the Summit will be successful in symbolism at least if not in substance. The very fact that they have agreed to meet suggests that both the leaders want and need this meeting. There are political rewards in different ways for both leaders. President Trump has never stopped campaigning since his election, and this diplomatic win will up his political capital substantially at home. As far as political victory goals, if he could get the North Koreans to go his way – this is an exceptional one, worthy of the Nobel prize.
"For the North Korean leader, Trump represents possibly the only politician in the United States that is capable of normalizing relations with the DPRK and ending the Korean War."
For the North Korean leader, Trump represents possibly the only politician in the United States that is capable of normalizing relations with the DPRK and ending the Korean War. For years, the DPRK has been trying to reach out to Henry Kissinger to play the role that Mike Pompeo has been playing in the last months but to no avail. Getting the Americans to the table represents an extremely impressive political and diplomatic achievement for the North Korean leader. Securing the Peace Treaty would accord DPRK relief from the sanctions, provide an additional lifeline to the North Korean economy and increases the leverage of the DPRK vis-à-vis China.
It certainly would provide additional security and stability to the region if the Summit works out. China’s role has been a silent supporter of the DPRK. I think China’s overall position is to be a fair and supportive friend of the DPRK, and at the same time, trying her best to act responsibility vis-à-vis her international obligations. China is also keen to ensure that North Korea doesn’t become another ally in the United States’ alliance system in East Asia. Despite the forecast of many analysts, as much as North Korea does not trust the Chinese, I would say that the Kim regime would not bet the entire future of the ruling party on DPRK’s friendship with the United States even if Kim and Trump signs a peace Treaty. The Summit would be a euphoric first step, but the denuclearization would take a longer and more twisted role.