North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's purge of senior leadership seems to be continuing, amid reports he ordered the deaths of relatives of his executed uncle. But in the midst of political tension, experts say the regime is moving forward on economic policies that increasingly are tied to neighboring China.
According to recently released figures, Chinese authorities granted 93,300 work visas to North Koreans in 2013—a roughly 17 percent gain from the prior year, NK News reported.
While Korea watchers warn against interpreting the data as North Korea opening up, the visas do emphasize "deepening" economic ties between the two countries, said Andray Abrahamian, an expert on the North Korean economy.
The China factor
North Korea was derailed by a devastating famine during the 1990s. Since then, the regime has subsisted—and even gained slightly, according to some estimates—with the help of Chinese subsidies and pockets of free enterprise.
China already provides the regime with financial support that amounts to a trade gap of about $1 billion a year. In other words since about 2008, North Korea imports about $1 billion more annually from China than it exports, said Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research group. "So North Korea is running an unpayable debt to China—China is essentially subsidizing North Korea," Bennett said.
China is offsetting this trade gap in part by purchasing North Korean mineral rights and other North Korean resources. But the residual trade gap can be interpreted as Chinese foreign aid to North Korea, Bennett said.
Chinese leadership, above all else, wants stability in the region. Beyond triggering a refugee crisis, a sudden North Korea collapse would overwhelm the local economies. And that would be unwelcome for China, which already is reaching a key inflection point.
After decades of double-digit, export-fueled growth, signs point to a slower, more balanced expansion for the mainland. A survey last week suggested China's manufacturing activity dipped in January for the first time in six months. That helped spook the global markets last week, and sparked investor worries about the emerging economies, including China.
(Read more: Why people fear a shadow banking crisis in China)