Credit where credit’s due, there is something that Trump has right about North Korea. If the Hermit Kingdom was to suddenly declare peace with the World and open up its borders to international investment then it would undoubtedly lead to a dramatic improvement in the living standards of its people.
What Trump doesn’t understand is that Kim Jong Un knows that, which is exactly why he doesn’t want it to happen.
Trump isn’t exaggerating when recognising the economic potential of North Korea. The southern half of the peninsular holds one of the wealthiest countries on Earth, boasting the Wolrd’s eleventh largest economy, some of the planet’s largest corporations, and a strong and mobile middle class. There is no reason North Korea could not eventually achieve similar heights.
But, why would Kim want that?
The mistake Trump is making is that he assumes that the “Supreme Leader” would somehow benefit from the economic wealth of his constituents just like a democratic leader might. The reality is the complete opposite.
Much of South Korea’s success, like many capitalist countries, is due to the strength and mobility of its middle class which makes up about 65% of the population. The history of the increasing democratisation of the Western World is inseparable from the growing economic strength of its middle-classes.
As larger portions of a society’s demographics obtained economic clout they invariably utilised their strength to obtain political power, basic rights, and protections.
Kim Jong Un is an absolute dictator who maintains his family’s grip on power through propagation of fear amongst the general population, along with rewarding those few elites that are lucky enough to sycophant off his rule. Any strengthening of the middle class that cower in fear to his rule would be an immediate threat to his dictatorship.
As it stands, North Korea is made up with the majority of the population that is too busy trying to survive to mount any meaningful resistance, along with a small group of elites whose privileged position is entirely dependent on the Kim family dynasty continuing. It has worked perfectly for them for generations. What could possibly possess those within power to wish education, smart phones, and purchasing power to the large swathes of the population they have successfully kept in their place for almost a hundred years?
Even if Kim was to allow investment in, it would be utterly redundant without some form of political liberalisation. An economy will only grow if the middle class is offered promise of economic inducement in return for their work. Ultimately there must be a genuine belief amongst anyone within the middle class that mobility is possible through hard work and innovation. This is what Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter coined in the 1950s as “Creative Destruction”. Put simply it is the belief that anyone can gain wealth through innovation and/or hard work (e.g. inventing a way of doing something more efficiently than it’s currently done).
If you remove the possibility that anyone can move up in economic class because of oppression by a political elite (e.g. imagine if rich taxi owners were able to have the inventors of Uber arrested before they could launch their company), then there will be no innovation and no economic growth.
Those that hold power in North Korea would not simply cede it to some upstart starting a new company in their basement. So long as they have the means to maintain their power they will utilise that.
Economic investment requires a strengthening of the rule of law and trust in basic property rights. Why would anyone want to invest in North Korea if they believed their investments could be simply taken away by the State at any time with no access to recourse? In any functioning democracy there is an independent judiciary ruling over clearly outlined laws enforced by an equally independent police force. Corporations are happy to invest their money into economies like Australia’s because they know what the rules are before they do it and they know that those rules will be respected, even if the State is the loser in the exchange.
There is simply no inducement that Trump could offer Kim Jong Un to cause him to introduce a robust and independent judiciary into his kingdom. He maintains his rule because his word is the law. Any rights inferred upon his people must be incurred against his own power and after seeing what happens to dictators like him in other parts of the world (see Iraq and Libya) he knows his life is literally dependent on his maintenance of the status quo.
The thing is, everything I have just explained to you isn’t a nuanced take on the issue. This is first year University concepts for anyone that has done anything similar to an International Relations degree. The problem is, Trump hasn’t done anything of the sort and he seems disinclined (to say the least) to take advice from anyone who offers an alternative narrative to the one he believes.
There are many who champion the fact that Trump isn’t a politician and suggest the very fact he isn’t an experienced diplomat is the reason why his diplomacy may work. But Trump’s intentions, however sincere, are entirely negated if he is ignorant to the true intentions of the man sitting across the negotiating table.
Where the ‘stick’ of Obama may not have removed the nuclear threat in North Korea, Trump is now instead dangling a carrot that Kim Jong Un has no interest in pursuing. In the meantime Intelligence agencies insist that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program continues to build strength in the shadows of a President who insists it isn’t happening.
Until someone in the White House finds a way to effectively communicate these basic concepts to Trump, Wednesday’s summit in Vietnam will be an exercise in showmanship… but little Statesmanship.