North Korea’s entry into the AIIB implausible, but still also desirable
North Korea this week downplayed South Korea’s recent decision to join a China-led financial institution as a trade-off for the deployment of an advanced U.S. missile defence system on its soil. Uriminzokkiri, the North’s propaganda website, claimed the U.S. was strengthening its push to send a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence battery to the peninsula in return for letting the South become a founder member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Seoul seems to have left some room for Pyongyang to make this argument by failing to take the initiative in dealing with the two separate issues at an early stage. Still, it is too hasty to define the THAAD deployment as a quid pro quo for the AIIB entry.
Seoul’s announcement of its decision to join the AIIB came well after the UK defied the U.S. to declare its intention to participate in the China-initiated organization, followed by a string of other Western countries. If South Korea opts to allow the U.S. to deploy the THAAD system here, the move should not be viewed as a trade-off for getting closer to China economically but as a sovereign act to counter North Korea‘s increasing nuclear and missile threats.
The North might feel more bitter about the South’s planned entry into the AIIB as its own attempt to join the institution was bluntly rebuffed by Beijing. A senior North Korean official reportedly approached the presumptive inaugural president of the AIIB, Jin Liqun, probably in Beijing in February, only to be turned down.
This outright snub resulted from Pyongyang’s failure to present a “far more detailed breakdown” of its economy and finances, according to a report by the London-based Emerging Markets. The rejection came as a shock to North Korea, which remains entirely absent from the global multilateral financial arrangements, as it seems to have regarded its membership of the China-led body as a realistic ambition, the report said, quoting unidentified sources. However, outsiders might not be surprised with Beijing’s dismissal of its impoverished neighbor’s application. Amid lingering concerns particularly from the U.S. about the transparency and efficiency of the new development bank, China certainly found it impossible to accept the North into the institution without securing specific data on its economic and financial situation.
From a standpoint of laying the ground for the eventual reunification of the peninsula, it would still be desirable for the North to become an AIIB member much later. Its membership might help induce the isolated regime to embark on reforms and openness. The South might be less burdened with funding projects to rebuild the North’s crumbling infrastructure.
It is unlikely, however, that Pyongyang will be ready and able to disclose credible information on its economy and finances to a satisfactory extent in the foreseeable future. The barriers to its AIIB entry might remain too high for its ossified system for a long time. It is still hoped that the humiliating experience of being spurned by its only major supporter might make the North feel the need to improve its tattered economy and finances.