10 October 2018
Last month, North Korea unveiled its latest series of propaganda posters, which, unlike some previous batches, contained no images of Donald Trump being attacked with an axe or Washington being destroyed by missiles.
Instead, the four brightly coloured posters promoted local production of steel and fabrics, as well as branded drinks, jams and sneakers. The propaganda resembled its Western-style counterpart, otherwise known as advertisements.
Kim Jong-un has not given up his nuclear weapons program or his slave labour camps. But, having developed a nuclear capability, he has shifted focus to rebuilding the country’s crippled economy. And this could present opportunities to the international community, including Australia. It raises the possibility of changing existing sanctions regimes to try to prod the hermit kingdom towards transparency and denuclearisation.
For years, the international community has relied mainly on economic sanctions to pressure North Korea. Australia has been at the forefront of enforcement. Last month, Canberra deployed two additional aircraft to Japan to conduct maritime surveillance, part of the international effort to prevent North Korean ships from engaging in illicit shipping of arms, drugs or nuclear-related material.
But sanctions can be used to reward as well as punish. Despite Kim’s history of deceit and the obfuscation surrounding his nuclear program, his determination to transform his nation’s economy appears to be genuine. Long-time visitors, while still subject to strict oversight by North Korean minders, have noted dramatic changes. “In the old days, a meal out in Pyongyang consisted of good Korean food … entertainment was provided by the waitresses, who danced demurely as they sang ditties like The Song of Industrial Rehabilitation for Nation Building,” journalist Richard Lloyd Parry noted in The Times after a recent visit. “Today, one can eat sushi, pizza, fried chicken and burgers, and steaks that cost as much as $70 … Everywhere we went we saw neatly dressed Pyongyangites, who looked suspiciously like an emergent middle class in the last communist dictatorship on earth.”
The nation remains one of the world’s most repressive, with its enforced reverence of Kim, who assassinates his political enemies. And the world has learnt from China that moves towards economic openness, and the rise of a consumer class, do not inevitably result in greater freedoms or civil rights. But proponents of applying pressure to North Korea, such as the United States and Australia, should now consider whether his agenda creates an opportunity to make the sanctions smarter.
South Korea’s leader, Moon Jae-in, who has spearheaded the push for peace on the Korean Peninsula, is clearly aware of the possibilities for cooperation with the regime. For his recent summit with Kim, he brought executives from conglomerates such as Sanyo and Hyundai to Pyongyang, which resulted in steps towards improving transport links and a promise by Kim to visit Seoul. The United States, Australia and others in the international community will now need to consider whether to allow South Korea to pursue economic cooperation, which would currently leave Seoul in breach of sanctions.
John Delury, an expert on North Korea based at Yonsei University in Seoul, believes Kim is a strongman and a great economic reformer in the mould of China’s Deng Xiaoping. He wrote recently in The New York Times that sanctions “may have helped induce Mr Kim to engage, but they will be an obstacle to further progress”.
“The United States should support the South’s efforts at economic cooperation with the North,” he commented. “And it shouldn’t fret so much about existing trade between North Korea and China, North Korea’s main economic partner.”
In his dealings with Kim, Trump has so far been outplayed. By holding a leaders’ summit in Singapore, Trump granted Kim legitimacy. At this summit, he suspended US military exercises in South Korea but received no concrete concessions. The two leaders signed a vague denuclearisation deal that has so far achieved little.
After a fourth visit to Pyongyang this year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that Kim had agreed to allow inspectors visit some nuclear sites. But Pompeo admitted that the promise lacked detail and still required “a lot of logistics”.
The problem with Trump’s approach is that he wants a dramatic win – and Kim knows all too well how to create the artifice of a deal.
A meaningful agreement between the two nations will instead involve gradual, detailed, trust-building steps. It will require concessions from North Korea – and extracting them seems more plausible now that Kim is selling messages to his people that Australia and others can recognise and support. Pyongyang is not about to be overrun by Starbucks, but its latest billboards suggest that fast-food chains and consumer gadgetry are rewards that might sway Kim to consider genuine trade-offs.