Governments worldwide may have been rattled by predictions of ensuing chaos with Kim Jong Il’s death. While such predictions could possibly be storms in a teacup, the new North Korean leadership has nonetheless triggered anxiety among observers. The big question for us now is – what does a new leadership by Kim Jong Un portend for Singapore?
Almost expectedly, the North Koreans have been quick to dispel any euphoria of a ‘new era’. Any potential reunification with the South is out of the question. Consequently, countries have redrawn battle lines and aligned themselves accordingly. It boils down to two divisive sides: you’re either pro-democracy or plain communist.
As of now, China is likely to remain the North’s supportive big brother; US and Japan, the two big evils.
Other countries – like Singapore – have refrained from giving their two cents worth.
Naturally so. No country would carelessly give their opinion so readily when the world waits, with bated breath, on how the major players would react now. This is not our fight, but any inkling of a potential war will ultimately affect us. But I say we pause to congratulate Singapore for how – in its own quiet, reserved way – it has managed to maintain amiable relations with the communist led-country, though much frowned upon by suspicious others.
An unusual brotherhood
If you weren’t aware then: Singapore is North Korea’s 3rd biggest trading partner, according to the U.S Department of State. Despite the government declaring that North Korea (and Iran) made up less than 0.4% of its total trade back in 2009, we do have an unusual brotherhood with one of the world’s most feared countries.
It is safe to say our relationship is a strong one. We have, after all, been running diplomatic ties with North Korea since 1975. Ostensibly, we don’t go around flaunting our strange brotherhood. Singapore, being heavily dependent on trade ties and relations with other countries, isn’t exactly keen on offending the US. We’ve played it safe – imposing sanctions on North Korea back in 2009 when the UN requested it – and sat, somewhat, on the fence.
However, with Kim Jong Un replacing his father in the political equation, are we going to keep our favoured status with this closeted nation?
The answer is yes.
Clearly, Singapore believes this to be the truth: “The next leader may not have the gumption or the bile of his father or grandfather. He may not be prepared to see people die like flies,” Lee Kuan Yew privately confided in 2010 – and disclosed in one US wire.
Translation: it’s all clear for business. The same goes for bilateral relations.
Although nothing certain is known about North Korea’s new leader, nothing bordering on the horizon is likely to tarnish our diplomatic relations with the secretive country. With more Singaporean investors looking favourably upon North Korea for future business opportunities, relations are likely to be smooth.
Singapore’s relationship with North Korea will remain “quite good”, affirmed Andray Abrahamian, director of external and media relations at Choson Exchange – a nonprofit organisation which seeks to facilitate education and business exchanges with North Korea.
Others are even more optimistic. The younger Kim might even decide to open the country to more economic opportunities, according to some. However, it is too early to tell.
I suppose money would toughen anyone’s cowardice. In fact, Singaporean firms view the capital, Pyongyang, as a land of opportunity rather than a feared, scorned country.
The latest figures on bilateral trade also reveal the total amount traded has risen over the years to S$126.4 million in 2008 – compared to S$83.7m in 2007.
At the same time, South Korea remains jittery about their communist neighbor, to say the least. The North isn’t about to soften on its nuclear ambitions, which still warrant worry and anxiety from other countries. Resumption on nuclear arms is on the cards, but it might take some time before anything concrete will have arisen.
It comes down to what kind of leader Kim Jong Un would be, and what his idea of a future for North Korea is. Whether he is poised to play an active role at the forefront or a puppet controlled by more powerful forces behind the throne, Singapore is unlikely to adopt a radically different form of action.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Singapore Globalist.
Sarah is currently a second-year student majoring in Geography and Political Science at the National University of Singapore. When she’s not thinking about development issues and other worldly problems, she resigns to being a couch potato. Aside from reading the Economist in her spare time, she is also a hearty lover of yoga.