If anyone thought that the North Korea saga would come to an abrupt end following the historic June summit in Singapore, they’re in for a rude awakening. While the meeting between North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump was a huge milestone, it was a first step, not a conclusion.
Singapore was (hopefully) the beginning of a long journey to reconciliation, one that has to take into account a myriad of factors. Each stage will require careful and delicate maneuvering, balancing both stern pressure and reciprocating good will.
There are two main categories in which progress will have to maintain moving forward. Fortunately, while change is often painful, we are seeing substantial headway on both fronts.
The major accomplishment of the Singapore summit was getting North Korea to commit to getting rid of their nuclear weapons. The problem is, there have been differing opinions on what that actually means practically, and what the exact expectations are realistically. While the very use of the word “denuclearization” is a huge step, the wording of the agreement signed by Kim in June couldn’t have been more ambiguous. The document declares that North Korea commits to “work towards” denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. It was inevitable that at some point controversy would arise as to weather or not North Korea was sticking to its commitment. Last week, National Security Advisor John Bolton bluntly told the press that North Korea has not made progress toward denuclearization. This was a dismal acknowledgment coming almost two months after Trump and Kim made their pact. “The United States has lived up to the Singapore declaration,” Bolton said. “It’s just North Korea that has not taken the steps we feel are necessary to denuclearize.”
Truth be told, John Bolton is almost certainly playing the hawkish “bad cop” persona at which he so famously excels. As a matter of fact, there have been some rather relieving signs that DPRK is making concrete steps to destroy their nuclear and ballistic development infrastructure. As reported by the North Korea monitoring institute 38 North, satellite imagery from August 3 indicates significant dismantlement activities are ongoing at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, an important facility for ballistic testing, construction, and space vehicle launching. Today, Sohae is North Korea’s main satellite launch facility and has been since 2012. The dismantlement is in continuation from the project that began late last month. In late July, commercial satellites revealed the facility in Sohae was being systematically destroyed. Most notably, the dismantling includes the rail-mounted processing building—where space launch vehicles are prepared before moving them to the launch pad—and the nearby rocket engine test stand used to develop liquid-fuel engines for ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles.
Granted, activity in Sohae does not mean all sites connected to Pyongyang’s nukes are being taken apart. Bolton could be simply indicating that progress isn’t fast enough for his liking. But to derive from this that no dismantlement is taking place (as some outlets would like to implicitly assert) would be a mistake.
From a strategic perspective, this is just one of the many schisms that are likely to occur between the U.S. and DPRK when it comes to mutual expectations. Kim agreed to let go of his precious nukes for one reason: the economic consequences of being an international pyraya have become too much. He may be willing to play by Trump’s rules, but only if he sees it is bearing fruit in easing sanctions and acquiring economic assistance.
Which brings us to the second driving factor in this delicate reconciliation process.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
Earlier this month, the Bank of Korea announced North Korea’s annual economic growth rate had fallen to -3.5 percent in 2017.
This number may come as no surprise to those that understand the effects of a centrally planned economic system. But there is something unique about North Korea’s dysfunction.
It seems that every area of North Korea’s economy has been permeated with systemic collapse, wreaking havoc on living conditions throughout the country. Continued international sanctions on the supply of goods has led to a reduction in imports and a rise in food shortages across the nation. Some areas of the country are on the verge of mass starvation. Recent droughts, floods and other natural disasters have only added to the country’s difficulties.
So where does the root of the problem lie?
On the surface level we see the rather warped attitude of a country’s leaders when it comes to resource allocation. The most significant mistake has been increasing military spending while simultaneously investing in the country’s nuclear development.
Another important factor has been the years of international sanctions affecting many sectors such as energy. These have certainly worsened the country’s economic situation. But the fundamental problem is not actually political in nature as opposed to economic. It’s not so much the effects of the planned communist economy. Rather, it is the hyper-isolationist stance that the government has taken against integrating the country’s markets with the outside world and adherence to the so-called “self-reliance” policies—severely limiting the amount of goods and services allowed in and out of the country. Leaders have blindly chosen to believe that they can develop the country’s science and technology fields without allowing their economy to open up to the world.
An economy completely disconnected from the outside ultimately means shortages of resources, as no single nation is able to provide all products and perform all services in the most efficient way possible. The ones who have felt the effects of these shortages the most are the low-level workers, all essentially employees of the Communist Party. Industrial workers, for instance, are forced to work seven days a week for 10 or more hours per day due to so-called “speed battles” aimed at accomplishing a large volume of work in the shortest possible time (if this scares anyone because of the resemblance it bears to Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” plan from 1950s China, it should). Scarcity in production tools and other resources have created the necessity for these types of programs: half propaganda campaign to motivate workers, half brute-force coercion. In fact, all sectors of North Korea’s economy are full of these “battles” to meet obscene levels of production in very short spans of time. The country’s plans for industrial production rates continue to increase despite the continuous decline of resources, particularly in the spheres of agriculture, coal, mining, electricity and steel.
The following excerpt from an article from the July 2018 edition of the state-run publication Rodong Sinmun shows just how expendable workers are in the minds of the communist leaders. It makes for sobering reading: “Now is not the time to sit down and wait or cry for the right conditions to fall into place. This is the time for all workers to make a brave decision and work proactively as fighters with a do-or-die spirit by becoming the everlasting flame that spurs rapid development and implement perfectly and rapidly whatever is given to them by the Party. Our workers have no right to faint or die before carrying out the Party’s policies and orders.”
It is important to understand DPRK’s economic bind because, at the end of the day, this is the primary factor that is driving its willingness to cooperate with the West. Trump, Bolton, and probably the overwhelming majority of Americans would like nothing more than to see the North Korean people rise from the dire circumstances in which they currently live. But the sad fact is, keeping the economic pressure tight is the only thing that can give even a hope of success to the administration’s plan.
Trump’s team is adamant on not budging. “The idea that we’re going to relax the sanctions just on North Korea’s say-so, I think, is something that just isn’t under consideration,” said Bolton in the same press conference. North Korea, on its end, is demanding something in reciprocation for the steps it’s already taken.
The road ahead will be all about keeping both sides feeling the other is making progress while, simultaneously, not forfeiting too much leverage.