Economic sanctions have come on the heels of a tough diplomatic year for North Korea. Nuclear tests, missile launches and the trial and temporary imprisonment of journalists further alienated the reclusive state. There are signs, though, that Kim Jong-il's regime is trying to engage the outside world again. The country sent an envoy to China, its only source of aid, often seen as a first step for North Korea.
As usual, the official word out of Pyongyang is meager, with the Korean Central News Agency (North Korea's mouthpiece) saying only that the envoy was led by Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Yong-il (though reported by Reuters, I was unable to find this announcement on the KCNA website at any point in the past week, though Kim Yong-il appears to have been courting officials from Laos).
Currently, North Korean commerce is being monitored on the suspicion that weapons are being trafficked. Last week, cargo en route to Iran was seized. Arms dealing is one of the few sources of hard currency for a nation that has felt immense financial pressure for well over a decade. In August, the U.S. Department of Treasury announced that it would freeze the assets of North Korean financial institutions involved in the weapons trade.
It is believed that the economic situation has been made worse by a poor harvest, which would translate to a need for international aid (from the only country that consistently provides it). Of course, even support from China comes at a price. Pyongyang is under pressure to return to the negotiating table to discuss its nuclear program with other countries in the region. Late last year, the North Korean government dropped out of the nuclear talks.
Kim Yong-il's visit to China appears to be part of a reciprocal agreement, as Wu Dawei, a senior nuclear envoy from China, visited Pyongyang in late August.
These limited diplomatic moves may be clouded by nationalistic displays over the next nine days, however. North Korea celebrates its independence on September 9, a date that usually brings with it more than a hefty dose of the propaganda we've come to expect from Kim Jong-il's regime. The KCNA has already spent the past week celebrating his "leadership exploits," but most realize that this is a constant when dealing with North Korea.