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Indonesia’s Natalegawa Visits North Korea to Boost Trade

Portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are displayed on buildings of the Pyongyang skyline. Photographer: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Indonesia’s foreign minister held talks with his North Korean counterpart during a rare official visit to the secretive nation, seeking to boost trade ties and nudge the North toward abandoning its nuclear ambitions.

North Korea “declared the principled stand on the issue of the Korean Peninsula” when Marty Natalegawa met with Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun in Pyongyang yesterday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said today.

The trip comes amid a nuclear deadlock between North Korea and major powers such as the U.S. and China. After conducting its third nuclear test in February, North Korea came under tougher United Nations sanctions and continues to refuse U.S. and South Korean demands to roll back its weapons program before international negotiations can restart.

The KCNA statement indicates “North Korea still isn’t willing to invite nuclear monitors or stop testing nuclear devices before resuming” talks on its weapons program, said Oh Gyeong Seob, a North Korea researcher at the Sejong Institute just south of Seoul. “It won’t be easy for Indonesia to achieve what North Korea’s top ally, China, hasn’t been able to,” Oh said by phone today.

North Korea and Indonesia have maintained friendly relations since the mid 1960s, when North Korean founder Kim Il Sung visited Jakarta. Natalegawa, on his first trip to the country, carried a letter from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono saying peace in the region was a precondition to economic development.

Mongolia Visit

Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj will also visit North Korea from Oct. 28 and meet with leader Kim Jong Un, Kyodo News reported today, citing unidentified Mongolian government officials.

North Korea’s official media made mention of Natalegawa’s trip in several reports, with KCNA saying yesterday he visited a palace in Pyongyang where former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lie in state, and paid tribute.

“The president of the Republic of Indonesia emphasizes the need for breakthroughs to intensify communication between the two Korean nations, including through non-traditional ways,” Natalegawa said in a statement yesterday. He also met with Kim Yong Nam, the president of North Korea’s parliament.

Natalegawa suggested that there could be an Indonesian business delegation visiting North Korea to study opportunities for economic cooperation, as special economic zones are opened in North Korea. Trade between Southeast Asia’s largest economy and North Korea grew more than 45 percent over the past five years, Natalegawa said in the statement.

‘Right Choice’

North Korea plans to jointly build a high-tech industrial park and a highway between Pyongyang and its airport with a consortium of foreign firms, including some in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, KCNA said Oct. 17.

South Korean President Park Geun Hye visited Indonesia earlier this month and called on the country to “play a role that helps North Korea make the right choice,” according to the website of her presidential office.

North Korea in 2009 formally abandoned international nuclear disarmament talks that would provide the impoverished nation with economic aid. The U.S. and South Korea say new six-nation talks -- that include China, Russia and Japan -- should not be held until the North starts rolling back its nuclear arms program.

Reactor Restart

The North restarted its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, a South Korean ruling party lawmaker Cho Won Jin said earlier this month, citing information from his country’s National Intelligence Service. Running the reactor at Yongbyon would mean the North is making good on promises made in April to restart the facility as part of efforts to produce energy and improve its nuclear armed force.

“It’s possible that North Korea may have invited Natalegawa to offset the influence of South Korea in the Southeast Asian region,” Hwang Jae Ho, an international relations professor at Seoul’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said yesterday by phone.

“That region has a host of countries that together can be influential in the circle of international diplomacy,” Hwang said.

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