The video “shows pretty much zero understanding of how [North Korean leaders] think about the economy, which is at most perhaps a Potemkin village-like availability for the elite to go to McDonald’s and Starbucks,” he said. “They don’t want to open up to investment, because they can’t handle the influences” or “North Koreans having their own access to money and information. They want to open up enough to get the appearance and experience of being a rich country for the elite, and to get cash.”
Joshua Pollack, an expert on nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, recently made a similar point about American economic assistance in particular. Summarizing an editorial published last month in North Korea’s state-run newspaper, he noted that the commentary “portrays the U.S. military threat to North Korea as paired with a campaign of ideological subversion, which will be spearheaded by U.S. intervention in the economy. Thus, any offer of aid or investment in exchange for disarmament is actually a pincer movement against the regime.”
“The editorialist’s reasoning goes like this: building up a strong, American-influenced, private-sector economy is meant to undermine [Kim Jong Un’s Korean Workers] Party’s grip on North Korean society and inspire an uprising against it,” Pollack wrote. “As in Libya, the U.S. and its allies would then back an insurrection. The regime would be helpless to deter this intervention, having divested itself of its most powerful weapons. The country would be destroyed. Check and mate.”
The disconnect between what U.S. officials seem to believe will appeal most to North Korea and what North Korean officials themselves seem to be seeking was on display in May, when Kim Kye Gwan, the North Korean first vice minister of foreign affairs, explicitly rejected the formula of “economic compensation and benefit” in exchange for North Korea “abandon[ing] nukes.”
“We have never had any expectation of U.S. support in carrying out our economic construction,” Kim said. Instead, he asserted that a “precondition for denuclearization” would be an end to America’s “hostile policy and nuclear threats and blackmail” toward North Korea. North Korean leaders, the Korea expert Joel Wit has written in The Atlantic, believe this hostile policy can be unwound with political concessions such as normal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and North Korea, security concessions such as a peace treaty that replaces the Korean War-era armistice, and economic concessions such as lifting sanctions on the North. In these categories, the visions in Trump’s video of international investment and a world-embracing, Manhattanite Pyongyang don’t feature prominently.
Nevertheless, when Kim Jong Un sent an envoy to the United States only days after Kim Kye Gwan’s statement, U.S. officials continued to place stock in the allure of economic prosperity and integration with the world. During a background briefing with reporters, a State Department moderator called attention to a picture of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo standing at a window with the North Korean envoy, Kim Yong Chol, and pointing out New York City landmarks. Pompeo is “motioning” to “a brighter future for North Korea,” the moderator explained.