Kim Jong Un (3rd left) inspects a military installation © Xinhua/SIPA/PA Images
Kim Jong Un (3rd left) inspects a military installation © Xinhua/SIPA/PA Images

How do you solve a problem like North Korea?

22 February 2017

We’ve all gone over the top with birthday presents from time to time but by any standards, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s gift of a missile test, to mark his late father Kim Jong-Il’s 75th birthday, is an extravagant display of filial devotion.

The unexpected test – followed by the assassination of Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother Kim Jong-Nam – seems to have nearly exhausted the patience of China, its economic benefactor, which has halted all imports of North Korean coal for the rest of 2017. This surprising act effectively halves North Korea’s exports at a stroke as, according to BMI Research, China bought 22.5m tons of coal from its troublesome neighbour in 2016. Even Russian leader Vladimir Putin is talking about new sanctions against Kim Jong-Un’s regime.

For decades, world leaders have veered between carrot and stick when dealing with North Korea – and trying to rein in its ambitions to become a nuclear power – with limited results. This is not entirely surprising – if you take the long view, psychologists still argue about which of these is the best way to change our behaviour. With this latest test, the emphasis is firmly on the stick. 

Yet North Korea is “the land of lousy options” as one US diplomat put it and some analysts are beginning to wonder if effectively trying to all but shut out the country from the global supply chain is a counterproductive strategy.

“If the US really hopes to achieve peace on the Korean peninsula, it should stop looking for ways to stifle North Korea’s economy and undermine Kim Jong-Un’s regime and start finding ways to make Pyongyang feel more secure,” wrote John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University, in the journal Foreign Affairs.

“This might sound counterintuitive but consider this: North Korea will start focusing on its prosperity instead of self-preservation only once it no longer has to worry about its own destruction.”

The obvious objection here is that a leader who, allegedly, had his uncle eaten by dogs and whose regime is implicated in the very public assassination of his half-brother, may not be capable of making rational deductions about his country’s long-term best interests.

Yet, the question many policymakers in Seoul are asking, is what other option does the rest of the world have? A preventative nuclear strike on Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities would probably fail – most of them are underground – and invite punitive retaliation on Seoul, which is just 60km from the border.

This option was considered by Bill Clinton in 1992 – which shows how long leaders have been wrestling with this conundrum ­– but he balked when confronted with estimates of 1m South Korean casualties in the event of such an attack.

For some conservatives in South Korea – and the US Congress – the denuclearisation of North Korea must be the prerequisite for any negotiations. Others argue that a moratorium is a more realistic option and wonder how much even stiffer sanctions will achieve. 

Writing on 38 North, an authoritative website devoted to analysing North Korea, Andray Abrahamian noted that: “Under Kim Jong-Un, the economy has grown and North Korea’s quality of life has improved. His personal brand is very much connected to the economy.” (The obvious exception to this improvement is the unquantifiable number of North Koreans who are detained in labour camps.)

The government is still encouraging the private sector to grow although, Abrahamian concludes, “the pace of economic experimentation has slowed significantly since 2013” (when Kim Jong-Un became supreme leader).

The obvious concern for the regime is that economic activity should not weaken its social and political control. On a more pragmatic level, the attempt to stimulate a market economy has been restrained by lack of capital, which is why the government is trying to reform the baking sector. Foreign investors are hardly likely to be attracted by assassinations or missile tests, so Kim Jong-Un’s bellicosity is hampering his own efforts to grow the economy. The country’s energy sector, which is in a dire state, is another bottleneck.

North Korea is portrayed in the West as a country perpetually on the brink of economic collapse. While it’s true that China’s leaders worry about the catastrophic impact of a famine in North Korea, it is hard to say how accurate the Western media’s perception is.

Economic data would help clarify matters but, as The Economist noted, “facts about North Korea’s economy are not so much alternative as existent.” One Chinese analyst suggests the country’s GDP stands at around $17bn, about the same as Iceland’s. Yet a South Korean study, drawing on the 2008 North Korean census – which suggested that 93% of households lack access to gas or electricity and depend on firewood or coal – estimates per capita income was then between $948 and $1,361 – roughly on a par with Haiti.

What is clear is that, with his uncle and his half-brother now dead, Kim Jong-Un has few rivals for power. Apart from Cuba, North Korea is the world’s only dynastic Communist state. And the chubby 33-year-old basketball fan is now the undisputed head of that dynasty.

Which means that the rest of the world is going to have to find some way of dealing with him.

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