Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

North Korea in 2019: economic development or the nuclear program?

North Korea in 2019: economic development or the nuclear program?
 Mathieu Duchâtel
Resident Senior Fellow and Director of International Studies

Will a way out of the Korean peninsula deadlock be found in 2019, and at what cost? Seen from Pyongyang, the equation’s variables are quite simple. The sanctions regime to which North Korea is subject leaves the country little room for manoeuvre to rebuild its economy, Kim Jong Un's priority since the adoption of the "new strategic line" at the plenum of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party in April 2018. The latter signals a break with the previous byungjin policy, which gave equal importance to nuclear weapons and economic development.

However, the "new strategic line" is doomed to fail without sanctions relief. No country will dare to violate the sanctions frontally and systematically, even if there are problems with enforcement, some quite serious. In short, only a specific UN Security Council resolution can give North Korea the space it needs to launch a real economic development policy. Yet this is highly unlikely to happen without sufficient concessions on the country’s nuclear and ballistic program.

The "new strategic line" is doomed to fail without sanctions relief.

It is thus all a matter of threshold, and two lines are currently opposing each other regarding the method that should be used to define it. North Korea defends "simultaneous" and "gradual" measures, an "action for action" process where each concession leads to a reciprocal concession. This approach is an extension of the "double freeze" logic, which was first proposed by the North Koreans themselves, and then successfully promoted by the Chinese and Russians.

It involves the suspension of ballistic and nuclear tests in exchange for the freezing of joint US-South Korea military exercises. The double freeze puts an end to the escalation which, in the second half of 2017, seemed to irremediably lead towards an American "bloody-nose" punitive strike, despite risks of flare-ups in the peninsula.

The alternative is for North Korea to provide a credible list of its proliferation activities, and a guarantee that it will accept an intrusive verification mechanism in line with international standards during the phase of dismantlement of its nuclear program. While North Korea’s plutonium production at Yongbyon is common knowledge, its uranium enrichment is underground, and no one knows how many centrifuges it has. And the production of fissile material only represents one aspect of the program, which includes many other scientific, industrial and military facilities spread throughout the country. All disarmament technicians keep emphasizing that there will be no complete and irreversible denuclearization without a prior inventory.
Six months after the first Kim-Trump summit in Singapore, North Korea is trying to persuade the Americans to accept "action for action". After the summit, it dismantled some facilities dedicated to the assembly of ballistic missile engines in Sohae, without obtaining any reward in return. It is now proposing to dismantle the Yongbyon site, at the risk of awakening the painful memories of the 2007-2008 sequence for negotiators of the six-party talks. After an agreement reached in February 2007, North Korea had closed the site and destroyed its cooling tower, before negotiations derailed due to disagreement regarding verification procedures and the American request of a full declaration. Will the United States want to reenact Yongbyon? In an official statement issued last November, North Korea warned that it would "not move a single millimeter, at any cost" in the absence of reciprocal measures from the United States.

The intractable issue with the "new strategic line" is that North Korea now has only two options left to breathe economically: tourism and sanctions evasion. The number of Chinese tourists is increasing, and Air China flights between Beijing and Pyongyang resumed just before the Singapore summit. South Korea says it is ready to work on reopening the Mount Kumgang tourist complex - a symbol of Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine Policy", but also of the regime's brutality. Indeed, Seoul had abandoned the project after a South Korean tourist was shot dead there by a North Korean soldier.

The intractable issue with the "new strategic line" is that North Korea now has only two options left to breathe economically: tourism and sanctions evasion.

Meanwhile, violations of the sanctions regime are regularly reported. Media reports suggest that China is turning a blind eye on North Korean exports via Dandong, as well as to offshore oil transfers to North Korean ships, photographed by the Japanese. Yet overall, even if humanitarian exemptions provided by the UN sanctions regime are added, tourism and sanctions evasion are not sufficient for a real development policy and only provide some breathing space to an otherwise suffocating international environment.
As a new year begins, China and South Korea are both defending simultaneous and reciprocal measures, each in their own way. In Beijing last week for his fourth meeting with Xi Jinping in 10 months - a greater frequency than Trump-Xi summits - Kim Jong Un obtained Xi Jinping's support for the "new strategic line", and a Chinese wish that the United States and North Korea "meet halfway". Similarly, at his New Year press conference, South Korean President Moon Jae-in claimed that, in order "to resolve the issue of sanctions on North Korea swiftly, Pyongyang needs to take substantive and drastic measures towards denuclearization. (...) If Pyongyang undertakes such actions, corresponding measures should be devised as well, in order to accelerate and encourage the North’s denuclearization." By adopting these stances, the two countries that would play a key role in the North Korean economy if sanctions were relaxed are undermining the prospect of a full declaration of its proliferation activities by North Korea.

This strengthens Kim Jong Un's hand as a second summit with Donald Trump is being prepared. Compared to his predecessors, Donald Trump innovated by agreeing to organize a summit with North Korea without any preconditions, which, from Pyongyang's point of view, is equivalent to a status recognition as a nuclear power. It is not unthinkable that the Trump administration would take a further step in the direction of "action for action", and reward incomplete disarmament measures. The question of a watered-down agreement would then have to be considered by the Europeans at the UN Security Council.

Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English