North Korea’s Taiwan Option: Exploring Two Deals

By | March 18, 2013 | 1 Comment

ROC Doorway

The Republic of China: Aperture or Dead-end for North Korea? | Image from Taoyuan, Taiwan, via Dansy.

When Beijing political and opinion leaders pound the metaphorical table and demand that the DPRK not proliferate weapons of mass destruction, is it possible they’re thinking of Taiwan as a worse-case scenario? The notion of Taiwan so much as expressing an interest in acquiring North Korean nuclear technology for defensive purposes remains a very long shot, but, as Mycal Ford reveals, there may be more substance to Taiwan-DPRK relations than meets the eye. —  Roger Cavazos, Coordinator

North Korea’s Taiwan Option: Exploring Two Deals

by Mycal Ford

Rarely does the sub-tropical island of Taiwan carve its own headlines in international mainstream news–that is, unless the People’s Republic of China (PRC) sends shells soaring across the perilous Strait. Or, unless China reassumes military posturing in regional waters like the South China Sea and West Sea. Only then, does Taiwan make the headline news, albeit by extension. However, this does not suggest that North Korea can afford to entirely disregard Taiwan and its 23 million citizens.

From the beginning of its history, the Democratic Peoples Republic of North Korea (DPRK) has not been positively disposed to the Chinese leadership on Taiwan. After all, the Nationalists volunteered to fight against the DPRK in the Korean War and have been the evil twin of North Korea’s key ally in the region, Beijing.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), for its part, has been able to count on steadfast support from North Korea when it pertains to issues of Chinese unification,  Taiwan’s movement for recognition in the United Nations, or in other contexts. While the PRC recognized the Republic of  Korea (ROK) in 1992, North Korea has never so much as flirted with destabilizing its relations with Beijing by switching its recognition to Taiwan, an action which would be, in effect, an economically suicidal decision.

However, what if North Korean-Chinese relations did in fact have another component, one in Taiwan? What if North Korea’s growing ranks of Sinophones had another option for engaging with broader China?

North Korea has become increasingly serious about travel and business exchanges with the outside world. Within this context, two connections deserve consideration: 1) Taiwan and North Korean tourist links, absent of CCP approval; and 2) Taiwan and North Korean business connections that more or less consist of back-door dealings. These two considerations suggest the complications of North Korea’s foreign policy, and remind us that Taiwan does not represent a full alternative to China in terms of commercial ties.

Screen Shot 2013-03-05 at 7.29.55 PMBack-Door Diplomacy | DPRK Vice-Minister of Tourism Bureau Makes a Secret Trip to Taiwan

Back in July 2012, Huanqiu Shibao (环球时报) reported that Zhao Chengkui (赵成奎), Vice-Ministerial Tourism Bureau Deputy Secretary of North Korea, made an uninvited and “unexpected” sojourn south to–no, not Malaysia, where Malaysian citizens enjoy visa-free one-sided exchanges to North Korea,–but, the Republic of China in Taiwan (ROC).

Zhao met with Taiwanese tourist agencies under the pretext of furthering tourist exchanges to North Korea, and obtaining more hard-currency thereby. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taiwan (MOFA) were, by-and-large, “left in the dark.” How is it that a DPRK official could circumvent a bureaucratic-beast like MOFA, especially considering the fact that formal relations between Taiwan and North Korea do not exist?

The answer is simple: Zhao Chengkui, the high profile tourist, did and did not circumvent MOFA, the large governing body facilitating the entire international ebb and flow of visitors.  Indeed, Zhao entered Taiwan under the radar of MOFA with a “tourist-visa.” Huanqiu Shibao reports :

外交部”官员竟是等到15日晚看到电视新闻后才知此事,遂在岛内引发震动/The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not discover the arrival of a DPRK official in Taiwan until late in the evening on October 15, while watching the news.

However, this apparent diplomatic gaffe is far more likely to be an intentional back-alley deal, whereby MOFA turned a blind-eye. If the US were to criticize Taiwan for such exchanges, MOFA could latch onto the alibi that they had simply been “unaware” of Zhao’s arrival. For instance:

台“外交人士”表示,若有朝鲜高阶官员来台,外馆发放签证后应及时向岛内汇报 / Diplomatic sources in Taiwan noted, “when North Korean officials are issued visas upon their arrival to Taiwan, the main island ought to be notified immediately.”

If MOFA accepted the North Korean official openly, Taiwan might have incurred harsh criticism from its long-standing ally the US, putting the future of its contested arms sales at risk.

Yet, the reason as to why the beacon of Asian democracy would settle with back-door negotiations with North Korea still remains unclear. Taiwan’s economy has experienced stunted growth under the second term of President Ma Ying-Jeou (马英九). Is it possible such business is one of many attempts to garner resources to provide impetus to a waddling economy? The answer remains unseen. As for North Korea, the process of securing tourist exchanges with Taiwain remains surrounded by the same strategic fog encircling its homeland.

Taidian Co DPRK

Huis Clos: Taidian and the DPRK | Image via Central News Agency in Taipei / New Talk.

A 16 year-old Grudge | North Korea Files Lawsuit Against Taiwanese Energy Firm

Liberty Times (Ziyou shibao/ 自由時報), a widely read and center-left editorial based in the Republic of China (Taiwan), often reflects the views of the Democratic Progressive Party (Minzhu jinbu dang/民主進步黨/DPP), the first meaningful opposition party to the Nationalists (國民黨/KMT), established in 1986 following Chiang Kai-Chek’s demise. Recently, Ziyou shibao reported, with the installation of a fourth nuclear plant in the backdrop, North Korea is suing Taipower (Taidian gongsi/ 台電公司).

North Korea is adamant that the Taiwanese energy firm breached its sixteen year old contract, which agreed to allow Taipower to transport low-levels of nuclear waste to North Korea. Ziyou shibao writes:

台電預定支付北韓八百七十二萬七千美元;不過,台電未簽約也沒回應,北韓不耐枯等,跨海委託律師蔡慧玲,擬向台電提告求償新台幣三億元/Taipower was scheduled to pay North Korea $8.72 million dollars; however, Taipower did not follow through on its “unsigned contract”…North Korea’s appointed lawyer, Caihui Ling, is now suing Taipower for $300 million dollars.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs (經濟部) reports that the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea and the Taiwanese energy firm agreed that North Korea would be a location where Taiwan could store its low-level of radioactive nuclear waste in 1996. However, the signed contract and consensus was temporarily suspended due to rising pressure from regional stakeholders–most notably, the Republic of Korea and the United States. However, just two years later in 1998, North Korea and Taiwan went ahead and signed the previously agreed on contract, despite expressed international concerns. That plan was simple: North Korea would continue to invest heavily into a construction project that would house Taiwan’s radioactive nuclear waste, and once completed Taiwan would follow-up with its monetary commitment.

The only problem, though: Taiwan’s energy firm never followed through. The firm did not obtain a permit from Taiwan’s Atomic Energy Council (AEC) to export nuclear waste overseas: [因無法取得輸出許可 合約停擺],[Taipower was]…unable to obtain [the AEC] permit. Perhaps Taipower succumbed to international pressure and could not be seen doing business with the likes of a rogue state that starves its people. After all, Taiwan does indeed need those defensive arms from the United States given China’s capricious behavior across the Strait.

Conversely, as the Atomic Energy Council wanted to perform substantive observations of the site-location, it was realized that the site had yet to be finished.  North Korea failed to fulfill its side of the obligation before Taipower pulled out:

不過,當時原能會質疑平山處置場的兩條坑道設施還沒完成,希望完工後再實體審查/ However, when AEC wanted to investigate the site location, it was discovered that North Korea had not finished….

Interestingly, how could Taipower expect North Korea to finish with the construction site when North Korea was riddled with widespread famine throughout the country during the 1990s and early 2000s?

Whether Taipower heeded the concerns of the international community, realized that such a deal could negatively impact Taiwan’s pursuit of defensive arms, or North Korea simply failed on its part, Caihua Ling (蔡慧玲), the Taiwanese lawyer appointed by North Korea, is currently tasked to nix this decade-old dispute by suing Taipower for breaching its contract.

Engaging North Korea in terms of commercial ties is complicated, especially for a country like Taiwan that is allied with the US. For Taiwan, while business exchanges with North Korea are of interest so as to prevent a waddling economy from sinking, and to find an expedient trash bag for its nuclear waste, such commercial dealings pose as a challenge to Taiwan’s reputation both as a democratic society and ally to the US, preventing Taiwan from representing a full alternative to China.

Additional Reading

Michael Rank, “North Korea-Taiwan Nuclear Waste Deal Thwarted,” NK Economy Watch, March 15, 2013.

One Comment

  1. Really enjoyed this essay. Saw something on the Taiwan-DPRK link at NK Economy Watch (always essential), but this brought it to a whole new level for me. Very glad that SinoNK has such a solid presence on the island, while I’m “in exile” (aren’t we all, in a sense?) from Chengdu. Well done.