A new army of experts wait their turn but none know the hell North Koreans endure

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk

The North Korean economy is in such dire straits that none of the experts know quite what to do about it other than beg Kim Jong-Un, please, sir, reform the economy and do away with your nuclear program in return for sanctions relief and a lot of aid.

If that bargain sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been hearing it for years. North Korea survives crisis on crisis amid much suffering, predictions of collapse and all the rest. Half the forecast of doom and gloom is correct. There’s plenty of gloom, just no doom.

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We’re going to be hearing much more about North Korea’s problems if a new team of negotiators and analysts takes over in Washington telling everyone how to come up with an agreement with the North that will really work. This time, unlike all the previous times, the experts again are saying they’ve got it figured out, and here’s the plan and here’s what the North Koreans at long last are going to accept.

Oh, and this time, unlike in years gone by, the North Koreans are going to do what they say they’ll do.

I’ve been hearing the usual talk in webinars and zoom conversation, most recently an event staged by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, but the lines, do vary from time to time.

In the CSIS panel that I tuned in on, Stephan Haggard, a noted professor at the University of California, San Diego, made the rather startling comment that the North Korean economy was “open.” He seemed to have a pretty good argument for that novel view until Thomas J. Byrne, president of the Korea Society in New York, who has spent decades rating companies and institutions for Moody’s, came up with an equally sensible counter-argument.

My own experience in trying to figure out the North Korean economy is that it’s impossible coming up with verifiable facts and figures for anything. It never occurred to me such an economy might be seen as “open.” From there, the idea of North Korea as an “open economy” should support the roseate view that you could get a straight answer from the North Koreans about its nukes and missiles.

None of the panelists mentioned the experience of Orascom, the Egyptian company that set up the North Korean mobile phone system. After a number of years Orascom pulled out with a familiar lament. The North Koreans, the Orascom boss said recently in Cairo, still owed them $600 million and there didn’t seem to be the slightest chance of ever getting them to pay up.

Talk about an “open” North Korean economy gives rise to another wearisome view that it should not be so hard to get Kim Jong-Un, bit by bit, step by step, to agree to scale down his nuclear program. Sure, the sophisticates agree, we know he won’t denuclearize, but if we just give a little, take away a few sanctions here and there, maybe he’ll give a little in return.

Not to press the case for sanctions, which are causing pain and suffering among people who’ve suffered far too much already, but this step-by-step nonsense failed in the past and won’t work now. Why didn’t the panelists acknowledge, “Look, North Korea’s nuclear program is embedded in their constitution, it’s the pride of the Kim dynasty, they can’t just throw it away.”

Sure, denuclearization is a worthy goal, but it’s not going to happen, step by step or all at once. Forget about the addled notion that the Chinese also want North Korea to denuclearize. The Chinese don’t care. They know those missiles, with or without warheads, are not going to be fired at them. Better, the Chinese believe, to get the Americans and Japanese all worked up while the South Koreans pursue a fantasy of reconciliation that’s going nowhere.

Expect much more palaver, talks and talks about talks, all not much different from what we’ve been hearing for years. This time around, though, Kim Jong-Un is seriously worried that his economy is in deep trouble, and he also has to lead the battle against a pandemic that one of the panelists, absurdly, seemed to think he’d been able to control by sealing off his borders.

No one really knows the hardships faced in a country that’s now more isolated than ever. The good news is that Kim has come to realize, it’s the economy, stupid. His nukes and missiles may be good for baiting and befuddling his enemies but are no defense against disease and discontent.

Don Kirk is a veteran correspondent who writes from Seoul and Washington, D.C.

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