Meeting in Singapore last month, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un captured the world’s attention and promised to work towards “new relations”. So, why has there been a lack of clear progress?
North Korea’s notoriety and ability to capture global headlines may have led to its power being overestimated. It appears Pyongyang has sought to disguise a position of relative weakness as one of unqualified strength. It framed the summit as one between equal nuclear powers. In fact, North Korea is a misfit power. Despite its new-found confidence as a nuclear-armed country, it remains a weak state preoccupied by its very survival.
North Korea’s economy, when local prices are taken into account, is roughly the same size as that of Laos, one of the poorest countries in south-east Asia, which has just a quarter of the population. The productivity of North Korea’s workers is the lowest in Asia and it suffers from an unusually low share of natural resources.
By drawing the US president into talks – and partially normalizing ties – Kim Jong Un appears to have played a weak hand well. And he not agree to a timeframe for denuclearization.
A former senior North Korean official has warned President Donald Trump he cannot just focus on denuclearization but must also deal with Kim Jong Un’s human-rights abuses if there is any hope of achieving peace and stability.
The North Korean government is well known for its atrocities, which the United Nations and others have said are just as bad if not worse than those committed by the Nazis. And yet, at their historic summit last month, President Trump repeatedly praised Kim Jong Un as “tough” and made little mention of his regime’s dire human-rights record.
Jang Jin Sung said this was a mistake. “When people try to separate the nuclear issue from the human-rights issue, it’s not really possible because these things are both working toward the same cause. They both uphold a political system that prioritizes Kim in every aspect, ” he said when asked about the summit.
For Jang, North Korea’s human-rights abuses should be seen in the same way, a means to keep the population down and prevent any challenge domestically.”This is a system that needs bombs, this is a system that inherently and essentially commits crimes against humanity,” he said. “The only real, permanent solution, whether that’s on nuclear issues or human rights, is one that deals that with both. Unless you have political transformation, you won’t make any genuine progress on these issues.”
Jang served as poet laureate to Kim’s late father, Kim Jong Il. Jang defected in 2004 after he read South Korean books, which he had access to because of his job, and realized the truth about his country. He is now a bestselling author living in South Korea. Jang is also a panelist for the Global Slavery Index, which released a report Wednesday saying North Korea was the worst country in the world for “modern slavery.”
Not since a deadly famine was ravaging North Korea in 1997 has the country seen its economy contract at such a large rate as it did last year. After a couple of years of growth, the country’s estimated gross domestic product went reeling in the other direction in 2017, shrinking 3.5 percent, according to South Korea’s central bank.
In the absence of reliable public information from Pyongyang, the Seoul-based bank is widely considered the region’s most knowledgeable source on the economic status of its northern neighbor — and bank leaders say the North’s nuclear ambitions and the international penalties that have resulted have done a number on that economic well-being.
U.N. sanctions have targeted sectors of the North Korean economy in recent years, which have also taken a toll on the country’s international trade. Additionally, the U.N. estimates roughly 40 percent of the population is undernourished.
Despite occasional violations, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Thursday he believes “those sanctions are basically being held.”
All told, these woes are unlike anything seen in North Korea since the mid-1990s, at least on paper. The last time (1997) the country felt an economic contraction sharper than last year’s, North Koreans were clawing their way out of a years-long famine that’s believed to have killed at least 2 million people.
Modern slavery is prevalent in North Korea, among other repressive regimes.
The Global Slavery Index estimates that 40.3 million people worldwide were subjected to modern slavery in 2016, with the highest concentration in North Korea where one in 10 people lived under such conditions. The report was compiled by the Walk Free Foundation, an anti-slavery campaign founded by Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest.
The goal of the index is to pressure governments and companies to do more to end modern slavery by providing hard data on the numbers of people involved and the impact it has around the world.
“By unraveling the trade flows and focusing on products at risk of modern slavery that are imported by the top economies, it becomes clear that even the wealthiest countries have a clear and immediate responsibility for responding to modern slavery both domestically and beyond their borders,” the report said. “Developed economies are exposed to the risk of modern slavery not only when this crime is perpetrated within their national borders, but also when that risk is effectively transferred to them via the products they import.”
Modern slavery involves the use of threats, violence and deception to take away people’s ability to control their own bodies, to refuse certain kinds of work or to stop working altogether. Repressive regimes are of particular concern because their “populations are put to work to prop up the government,” according to the report.
The report cites coal, cocoa, cotton, timber and fish as among the products that may be tainted by modern slavery. In North Korea, coal exports are the area of greatest concern.
Sung-min (not his real name) was well-off and a college graduate in North Korea. But he was disenchanted with his country and decided to leave. In January 2007, he crossed the Tumen River into China.
“The border guards told me to go to a church where I could get help but I refused because I was an atheist. At first, I hid out in an apartment in China. A Chinese man I got to know during the river-crossing ended up bringing over a preacher to me who I had refused to meet him at first. He said he understood my hardships and told me that Jesus died on the cross to give me eternal life.
“I cried, knelt down and prayed with him and made the decision to become a Christian.”
Today, Sung-min works on a Christian radio program in South Korea, which promotes unity among North and South Koreans in preparation for reunification. He says, ” I believe around 10 million North Koreans are listening to our program on mobile devices.”
Sung-min believes many of the North Koreans who have defected and become Christians have returned to their country in order to share the Gospel. He estimates 30,000 of them belong to the underground churches in North Korea.
Sung-min adds, “I believe God has a plan for us and will reunite Korea in his time and in his way. Our program aims to embrace the differences and restore common identity of the people of two Koreas.”
The number of North Korean defectors arriving in South Korea during the first half of 2018 fell by 17.7% compared to the same period in 2017, according to official statistics recently released by the South’s Ministry of Unification (MOU).
If the trend continues through to December, this year could become the first time since prior to 2001 where fewer than 1000 defectors enter the South in one calendar year – just one-third of the peak recorded in 2009.
Of the defectors arriving in South Korea, 88%, were women – representing a small rise in the female-to-male ratio compared with the same period in 2017. This ratio has slowly risen in recent years, first reaching 80% of the total in 2015 and 83% for the full year in 2017.
Women currently make up 72% of all recorded defectors, which, according to the MOU, now stands at 31,827, having passed the 30,000 mark in November 2016.
But numbers have been dropping since Kim Jong Un assumed power at the end of 2011, due to a range of new and varied proactive measures by North Korean authorities.
Before settling in South Korean society, all newly arriving North Koreans are required to undergo three months of “training for social adaptation” inside the MOU-operated Settlement Support Center for North Korean Defectors, also known as Hanawon.
Jae-un is the lone survivor in a family of five siblings. Her father was taken to a labor camp in North Korea when she was 2 years old, and never heard of again. During the Great Famine in the mid-1990’s, her only brother died of malnutrition. Her mother died on the road while trying to find food to bring back to her starving family.
Jae-un, vividly recalled in tears, the hardship they went through. “During the famine, we only got rice once in three days. When my mother died, we did not have the strength to bury her. My older sister went to China to earn a living for the family. She sent money once to buy rice but I never heard of her after that. I learned that she was sold as a slave. My other sister engaged in smuggling, got caught, and was sent to a labor camp where she also died.”
Out of desperation, Jae-un decided to escape from North Korea. One night in December of 1999, she crossed the Yalu River and swam for the Chinese border. The water was freezing and the current was so strong but she was determined to survive.
After arriving in China, she was sold to a man who she ran away from because he did not treat her well.
It was then that Jae-un joined a Bible study group in China. She remembered the woman she met prior to her escape who spoke to her about God. Jae-un said she was impressed with the woman’s kindness. “She gave me money to buy three months’ worth of rice and she told me that God is alive and is with me since He is the Father to the fatherless and the defender of the widows. I had heard of God in North Korea but I was also aware that believers are taken to prison.”
Jae-un married a North Korean man she met in church and they eventually made it to South Korea.
Recent negotiations between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump have provided a glimmer of hope for the hermit kingdom’s economic outlook. Markets are now watching to see whether the North Korean leader follows through with his pledge to denuclearize.
The next step will be policy reforms, which will open North Korea’s economy to foreign investors. Credit Suisse analyst Trang Thuy Le estimates North Korea could become a $100 billion economy within 10 years if it takes a path towards modernization.
And Le cited another interesting fact about North Korea: some industry experts speculate that it may be sitting on a vast amount of untapped natural resources. “South Korea’s state-owned mining company Korea Resources estimates that North Korea’s mineral reserves — coal, iron ore, zinc, lead, copper and rare minerals — could be worth in excess of $6 trillion,” Le said.
That amounts to 190 times North Korea’s 2016 GDP of around $32 billion.
To gauge how North Korea’s growth projections would look if it opens its economy, Le compared it to three other countries that went through a similar modernization process. “We take the experiences of South Korea in the 1970’s, China in the early 1990’s and Vietnam in the late 1990’s as guides to the potential for North Korean growth to rise,” she said.
Based on the experiences of those countries, Le said North Korea could generate real GDP growth of 7-8% per year in local currency terms. At that rate, the economy would grow to around $100 billion in size, which would see per capita income would rise from $1,258 to around $4,000.
President Trump released a letter he recently received from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The letter is dated July 6 and was given to Secretary of State Pompeo delegation to deliver to Trump while the group was in Pyongyang last week to continue talks on denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, senior administration officials tell CNN.
“A very nice note from Chairman Kim of North Korea. Great progress being made,” Trump said in a tweet that also included a copy of the correspondence from Kim.
While lacking in specifics about the status of diplomatic talks between the US and North Korea, Kim’s letter lavishes praise on Trump, repeatedly referring to the President as “Your Excellency.”
“I firmly believe that the strong will, sincere efforts and unique approach of myself and Your Excellency Mr. President aimed at opening up a new future between the DPRK and the US will surely come to fruition,” Kim writes. Kim says the Singapore summit and the letter both leaders signed during that meeting are “indeed the start of a meaningful journey.”
Trump also touted his meeting with the Kim Jong Un while at NATO, calling it “an amazing meeting” and saying the two “established very good relations.”
Trump’s release of the letter comes amid growing skepticism around Pyongyang’s willingness to denuclearize as North Korean officials continue to use typical tactics to stymie talks following Pompeo’s overnight visit to Pyongyang last week. Although the top US diplomat was promised a meeting with the Korean leader, Kim did not meet with Pompeo.
North Koreans also did not show up to a meeting planned for Thursday to discuss the return of remains of US service members killed during the Korean War. Trump had held the return up as one of the successes of his June 12 summit in Singapore with Kim.
The Trump message to Kim Jong Un was direct and blunt: You, your father, and your grandfather have all touted your nuclear program as a guarantee of regime security. Policies of previous U.S. administrations allowed you to persist in that delusion. Not this one.
President Trump used a two-track approach to drive the threat home. First, his “fire and fury” rhetoric was accompanied by credible, calibrated leaks of administration preparations for kinetic action that, depending on Pyongyang’s response, could readily escalate to destruction of the Kim government.
At the same time, the president seized on an even more plausible and readily available instrument of regime change: North Korea’s internationally-condemned crimes against the humanity of its own population. With the proper mix of covert action, strategic communications, and coordination with North Korean defectors, the despised Kim machine could be effectively dismantled without the massive carnage inherent in major military conflict.
To China’s Xi Jinping, Trump was equally clear: You will no longer be able to garner undeserved international prestige as a responsible and moderating force while duplicitously enabling and protecting North Korea’s mounting existential threat to South Korea, Japan and the United States. Chinese entities, both official and commercial, which subvert international sanctions against North Korea, will pay an increasingly heavy price.
These indicators of Trump’s seriousness brought Kim Jong Un to agree to meet with President Trump in Singapore.
Presently, It is clear there is now a test of political will between Washington and Beijing on trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea and North Korea.