Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Pyongyang’s paradox

Trump may have upended the rules of diplomacy, but his reckless tactics have inadvertently presented an opening for peace with North Korea, writes Glyn Ford

The story of Pyongyang’s paradox has been its attempt to simultaneously achieve two seemingly mutually exclusive goals: to build the economy and to develop a nuclear deterrent.

The second automatically precluded the first, as the global community tightened its economic garrotte turn-by-turn, with each forward step in the North’s nuclear and missile programmes. Kim Jong Un’s succession – with his father Kim Jong Il’s death in 2010 – brought a new self-confidence and direction to the country and the party. When his father – after a three year hiatus – finally took over from the Nation’s founder Kim Il Sung in 1997, the situation was been grim. The collapse of the Soviet Empire in the early nineties and the  misfortune of alternating flood and drought in the North, saw the country the subject of a ruinous famine: the consequence of a conjunction of systemic failure, natural disaster and global indifference. The final death toll was between 400,000 and 800,000 people.

Kim Jong Il was forced by necessity, but with regret, to allow the emergence of the market to darn the holes and patch the gaps in the increasingly tattered and threadbare provision of food rations through the public distribution service. That, along with belated humanitarian assistance from the global community, restored the country and the economy to close to its usual abnormality. One permanent change was the continued begrudging toleration of farmers markets that were the bridge between starvation and scarcity. It was Kim Jong Un that turned rebuff to embrace. Now the majority of people and transactions follow the market.

Pyongyang has, at least technically, been at war with the United States since 1950, with the 1953 armistice being a pause rather than peace. With the Soviet nuclear umbrella furled as its Empire collapsed, Pyongyang needed to look to its own defence. From the early nineties, Pyongyang toyed with the nuclear option. It was two steps forward one step back: after the 1994 nuclear crisis there were a sequence of on-off negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington. Failure haunted every success, and in the interludes – the North’s programme crept forward.

It was only in 2013 that Kim Jong Un decided to go for broke. The only question was: if he was to barter away his nuclear deterrent, how could he ensure he got the best price? After all, for his father the price was always too low. That premium would come with a completed weapons and missile programme that could be claimed capable of delivering nuclear strikes against the mainland US. Yet if this was to be done it was best done quickly. More layers of sanctions would temporarily paint the economy, but these would be stripped back sheet by sheet as Pyongyang counter-traded physical deterrence for a mesh of security guarantees and generous packages of humanitarian and development assistance.

Overall, Kim Jong Un wants three things, security, respect and prosperity. For these he will barter away a nuclear deterrent designed for the shop window rather than the launch-pad, built for sale not utility. Surrender will be a financial transaction, a business deal. Yet Washington does not understand. They are still fighting the last war, they are negotiating with his father and grandfather rather than him. The North is not a ‘surrendered state’ like Japan in August 1945. Any solution thus involves give and take. For Pyongyang, they are doing the giving and Washington is doing the taking. While I have little sympathy for his politics, President Trump got it in Singapore – but since then he has suffered institutional capture and held hostage by his adjutants in Washington whose thinking has slipped back into the easy ruts of past negotiations. Kim’s people have already signalled that he cannot afford to be endlessly patient in the face of intransigence. Both leaders are way ahead of their followers. Now the united front to confront Pyongyang is in danger of collapsing as two poles materialise, one China, Russian and South Korea and the other US, Japan and the European Union.

The last best chance is a second summit with a ‘Big Deal’ package. One that delivers on Washington’s side the promised ‘end of war’ declaration, the start of negotiations for a peace settlement on the peninsula, and lays down an early timetable for easing – not lifting – sanctions. For Pyongyang it is the decommissioning, disabling and destruction of the Yongbyon Graphite Moderated Reactor and its associated facilities, plus international experts inspecting the former nuclear test site along with a permanent moratorium on long-range missile launched and nuclear tests. Icing on the cake for Kim could be a visit by business, hi-tech and university leaders to the North.

As someone once said there is light at the end of the tunnel but there is no tunnel – yet.


Glyn Ford was the leader of the European parliamentary Labour party from 1989-1993


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Glyn Ford

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