North Korea is a regime sustained largely on criminal enterprises, from slavery to illegal arms deals, with a carnivorous economy now left gnawing at bones due to international sanctions.
A hint at the size of the problem comes from Kim Jong Un’s recent New Year’s speeches where he mentioned his recent nuclear advances just 42 times over seven speeches compared to 120 mentions of the economy.
Clearly his audience cares more about rice and shoes than nuclear-tipped ICBMs.
Kim is facing a new generation of North Koreans that have been widely exposed to South Korean media, familiar with lifestyles denied to all but the elite in North Korea. They are demanding higher living standards, more market freedom, and access to the kind of everyday goods like cell phones and television programs that are still luxuries in the Hermit Kingdom.
Kim’s speeches emphasized the need for economic development across all sectors. But such growth faces a major impediment—a chokehold of sanctions.
Kim’s supposed olive-branch to South Korea, a round of talks aimed at figuring out North Korea’s participation in the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, is almost certainly to feature repeated calls for a lessening of sanctions or direct bilateral aid.
South Korea has often provided North Korea with money and food, an effort to ease relations that some analysts have blamed for helping sustain the North’s communist regime.
But with the North now brandishing a nuclear negotiating card, it is more important than ever that the United States and South Korea keep something clear, according to one academic. Any effort to negotiate with the Kim Jong Un needs to acknowledge that North Korea is a criminal enterprise.
To deal with Kim effectively, nations must remember Kim is most accurately described as a gangster. His most critical weakness is money and how he gets it, writes Robert Huish, an associate professor in International Development Studies at Dalhousie University.
“View him as a thug. And like any gangster, understand how he makes money and what really scares him.”
Kim is desperate for cash, write Huish in a recent piece published by The Conversation.
The Kim regime is isolated and needs resources for its nuclear and missile programs. And unlike actual governments, the North Korean regime will resort to any means to get what it wants.
“Kim acquires weapons by sea, he pays for them with narcotics, cyber-attacks and cryptocurrency. Masterful smugglers, North Korean vessels run under flags of convenience, shell companies process the funds, and other vessels entering North Korean waters deceptively turn off their broadcast identifiers,” writes Huish.
The Kim regime uses smuggling, counterfeiting, insurance scams, and weapons sales. It makes narcotics, has a prolific trade in forced labor, and conducts massive cyber attacks, all in the effort to get liquid funds it can use for imported essentials like high-end components for missiles and luxury items used to keep the ruling elite on the regime’s side.
But efforts to cut off North Korea’s funds have evolved under the Trump administration and are now reaching the entities that enable Kim’s illicit activities, namely the banks and maritime operators he relies on.
That development, says Huish, leaves Kim with fewer options, though more work is needed.
Soon U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Canadian foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland will host a meeting of former allies that fought North Korea 65 years ago.
On Jan. 16, the United States and Canada will invite the original sending nations that had troops on the ground during the Korean War under United Nations Command (UNC) to gather in Vancouver. That mix of nations includes New Zealand, France, Greece and several other nations. Japan and South Korea, though not a part of UNC, will be major participants in the upcoming talks.
Strategic sanctions have put Kim in a tough position but if they are to fulfill their purpose, they must further extend to all those that do business with and fund the regime.
With reports that even common soldiers are struggling to get food, Kim may be closer to the breaking point than many believe.