Hanoi, Vietnam — President Donald Trump’s message to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has been simple and clear: Give up your nuclear weapons and a flood of wealth will soon be yours for the taking.
But here’s a nagging question — Is that really what Kim wants?
With Trump and Kim descending on Hanoi for their second summit, there has been a persistent suggestion that Kim will look around at the relative prosperity of his Vietnamese hosts and think that he, too, should open up his country to more foreign investment and trade.
Trump himself has been the primary cheerleader.
On Wednesday morning he tweeted: “Vietnam is thriving like few places on earth. North Korea would be the same, and very quickly, if it would denuclearize. The potential is AWESOME, a great opportunity, like almost none other in history, for my friend Kim Jong-Un. We will know fairly soon – Very Interesting!”
For sure, North Korea could have a brighter future.
“Using the words ‘great economic power’ is a Trumpian exaggeration, but a useful one,” said William Brown, a North Korea economy expert and former CIA analyst. “The truth is North Korea quite easily could become a prosperous country, growing faster than any of its neighbors and catching up with them in terms of income per capita. It has what it takes.”
Brown cited North Korea’s strong human capital, low wages, and high levels of verbal and math literacy. He also noted it has a potential bonanza of natural resources such as lead, zinc, rare earths, coal, iron ore and hydropower. He said North Korea sits “between four big economies that are far richer but increasingly moribund.”
Kim has also primarily focused on the development of infrastructure projects, building up the tourism industry and strengthening government regulation of the country’s expanding market-style economy.
But opening his country up to foreign capital and bringing his country in line with international financial standards means giving up a great deal of control.
Control, for Kim, is the most important commodity of all.
Nuclear weapons helped the North Korean leader meet directly with a U.S. president, so Kim would bewithout significant reward. On the other hand, if he goes down a capitalist path, like South Korea, Kim could risk undermining his regime’s own legitimacy.
As Kim arrived in Hanoi, back in Pyongyang the ruling party’s daily newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, printed a commentary vowing the nation will stay the course the Kim family has set for the past three generations.
“The revolutionary cause of juche (self-reliance) and the cause of socialism are sure to triumph” under the guidance of the party and the people “who remain faithful to the cause of the party with indomitable mental power,” it said.
Collaborating with South Korea
In the immediate future, Kim wants to get in front of the growing market forces around him and undercutting support for trade sanctions that are limiting his options and drying up government coffers. North Korea is also hurting badly from its inability to export its minerals and coal.
Under Kim, enterprises have received unprecedented freedom to plan their own production and dispose of a large share of their profits themselves.
His government is especially interested in moving ahead on projects with South Korea, including the re-opening of a tourist resort at Mount Kumgang and an industrial center near the city of Kaesong that were both built with massive funding from the South.
Given the choice between social controls or economic reforms, Kim will choose control, suggested Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, a fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center and editor of North Korea Economy Watch.
“Whatever might happen, they’ll proceed cautiously,” Silberstein said.