The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (hereinafter DPRK) holds external debt against the rest of the world yet has not made its position clear on how to repay this after declaring moratorium in 1984. The magnitude of the debt subject for repayment is increasing annually as the interest for arrears has accumulated. The issues regarding approaches that the DPRK would take in regards to repayment of its debt were raised when Russia relieved it from its duties for repayment of external debt against the former Soviet Union in 2012. In light of the situation in 2018 and 2019, when rapprochement between the DPRK and the United States was burgeoning, once the former shows its willingness to open its economy and to enter the phase of reformation, it is reasonable to believe that the discussion on how to resolve the mounting external debt of DPRK would be expedited when US-DPRK relations enter this new phase.
Against this background, the external debt of DPRK will likely be one of the primary diplomatic and economic matters facing the Republic of Korea in the longer perspective, albeit not an imminent issue to be taken care of. Therefore, this study examines the current state of external debt incurred by the DPRK and international norms on how to manage this, as well as cases abroad to identify the tasks at hand for the Republic of Korea’s government to respond to various scenarios on changes in circumstances on the Korean Peninsula.
More specifically, it analyzes international standards, cases in other countries, and policy measures to consider when resolving the DPRK external debt issue, separating itself from previous ones in the following four features. First, it covers the estimates of the magnitude of the external debt that the DPRK holds. Second, it delves into international rules on resolving debt. Third, it suggests means to relieve the external debt of DPRK under two different scenarios, one of which is when both Koreas are united, and the other where the two economies are integrated but not the countries themselves. And last but not least, it offers a systematic overview on tasks for both Koreas’ administrations once the DPRK initiates transition to a market economy and the process of economic integration of the two Koreas. Most of the related literature prior to 2020 covered the measures to relieve external debt of the North Korea postulating a situation where the two Koreas are united. In this study, however, a scenario where the two Koreas are united is briefly reviewed, with the primary focus placed on the premise of the two Koreas coexisting with economic cooperation in progress.
The details of each chapter are as follows. First, Chapter 2 reviews all the statistics on the external debt of the DPRK. There are various sources of estimates on how much external debt the DPRK holds against its counterparts, showing different ranges and figures depending upon the source. This study aggregated statistics open to the public based upon the counterparts, sources and types of external debt. Chapter 3 covers the international rules that manage the relief/cancellation of public and private debt as well as the international laws on state succession. Chapter 4 examines cases abroad, categorizing the countries into three subgroups: ① countries in transition (Vietnam, Myanmar), ② united countries (Germany, Yemen), and ③ China. The case of China is extremely intriguing as it holds the largest claims against the DPRK and has become one of the biggest creditors for low-income and developing countries recently. This study, unlike the previous literature, takes China into account as one of the biggest creditors of the DPRK, a key variable to consider in the future. The final chapter, Chapter 5, discusses potential measures to relieve/cancel the DPRK’s external debt under two different scenarios for two Koreas’ geopolitical situation. It concludes with the policy tasks for the administration of the Republic of Korea, bearing in mind two different scenarios of geopolitical circumstances surrounding the Korean Peninsula.
This study confirms that the DPRK external debt can vary depending on the inter-Korean relationship, negotiations of denuclearization, its gaining membership at international financial institutions, and measures to relieve/cancel debt against China. First, if the DPRK finds itself in the transition process and tries to relieve the debt on its own, restoration of the US-DPRK relationship and joining the IMF will be prerequisites. This is because in order for the external debt to be rescheduled via the Paris or London Club, it is a must to go through programs imposed by the IMF. In order to do so, the US needs to lift its sanctions specifically prohibiting the DPRK from joining the international financial institutions, and the DPRK must be able to show its willingness to transform its country. Second, it is predicted that if the two Koreas are united under an extreme emergency, then it is most likely the Republic of Korea would succeed the external debt of the DPRK, in accordance with international rules and practices. However, the magnitude of the debt that the administration would take on and measures on how to deal with them would hinge upon the Republic of Korea’s tactics towards its neighboring countries.
This study substantiates that the DPRK’s external debt against China will be a major factor that would affect not only the process of relieving this debt but also on procurement of potential financial sources after it opens its economy. In light of recent examples of how China handled its claims against developing countries, it would be imperative to determine when to resolve the bilateral debt between China and DPRK within the process of restoration of the US-DPRK relationship. At that point, bilateral talks between the DPRK and China, which potentially would improve economic circumstances within DPRK thanks to a supply of new funds or drastic debt cancellation from China, would challenge the DPRK’s attempt to reinstate its status as a normal nation.
It is believed that the outcomes of this study will be able to provide insights to the government of the Republic of Korea when there is significant progress in denuclearization of the DPRK and an attempt to normalize its relations with the rest of the world.