Illustration: Craig Stephens
by Chan Young Bang
by Chan Young Bang

Time for Kim Jong-un to embrace denuclearisation and open up North Korea economically

  • While North Korea’s leader possesses a vision for the future of his country, the lack of an exit strategy from his nuclear programme has thwarted peace talks
  • Embracing denuclearisation in exchange for security guarantees, normalised relations and development aid will open the path for North Korea’s economy to soar
Despite the perception that Kim Jong-un will never relinquish his nuclear weapons programme, analysis of the North Korean leader’s rationale reveals it to be untrue. He has an ardent aspiration to ensure the survival and enduring sovereignty of his country, and it is with this mindset that he approached the global community in repeated summit meetings.

However, peace talks consistently failed because, although Kim possesses a vision for the future of the country, he lacks a viable exit strategy from the nuclear weapons programme. Today, with the rapidly approaching inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden – who has stated he will not conduct any meetings with Kim “absent preconditions” – North Korea’s time is running out.

Time and again, sitting President Donald Trump could not enunciate the “bright future” he so publicly promised the regime. What Kim needs from Biden to ensure a bright future for North Korea and lasting peace for the international community is the transformation of the country into a normalised, peaceful and prosperous member of the global community, coupled with spectacular economic growth.
Kim, as a rational decision-maker in a cost-benefit calculation, is sure to come to the conclusion that trading denuclearisation for sustained economic development with the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan – the other members of the six-party talks – offers a distinctly better chance of survival.

However, a merely transactional agreement – dismantlement in exchange for economic modernisation – will not be enough to ensure the survival of the country. Kim must also transform the distorted North Korean system into one viable and capable of achieving rapid and sustained growth.


North Korea’s new ‘monster’ intercontinental ballistic missiles on show at military parade

North Korea’s new ‘monster’ intercontinental ballistic missiles on show at military parade
North Korea’s current economic state is antithetical to the idea of economic modernisation. This backwardness is characterised by a complete inability to introduce macroeconomic policy because of the absence of economic and financial institutions, transparency, access to credit and legal business entities.

However, improvement measures alone will not be sufficient to ensure successful modernisation. They must be accompanied by opening – entailing full integration with the world economy and transformation into a friendly trade partner to allow for foreign investment, knowledge transfers and technology sharing.

Without transforming into market socialism – with a free labour market, free economic activities and private enterprise – sustained, dynamic growth cannot be achieved. Ultimately, the current deficient state of infrastructure within the country would make sustained economic growth impossible.

“It does not matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” This well-known wisdom from Deng Xiaoping, the architect of the modern Chinese economy, is an allegory for the notion that the ideological shackles restraining the economic system must be cast off and a new paradigm adopted.

The basic requirement for the globalisation of North Korea’s economy will be to liberalise economic activities, necessitating the elimination of all bureaucratic systems and controlling measures that block integration with the global economy. It calls for radically revising the revolutionary juche ideology established by Kim Il-sung.
Such a transformation must involve a change from hostile foreign policy to amicable, normalised relations. Thus, the decision to denuclearise would mean shifting the state’s development paradigm from the byungjin policy of simultaneously pursuing military and economic development to an economy-first policy, implying that juche has lost its validity.

To demonstrate the legitimacy of the new national development paradigm, Kim must sustain a high level of economic growth. At least 10 per cent average annual GDP growth is needed to mitigate the shocks that will arise during economic modernisation.

The kind of rapid development required to provide Kim with a new source of domestic legitimacy and a means of continuing his dynastic legacy will demand the allocation of a development fund of at least US$30 billion per year across at least a 10-year period to ignite growth and mitigate the destabilising effects of opening the country.

North Korean rice farmers rush to counter food shortages and malnutrition worsened by Covid-19
Along with the development fund, the stakeholders must provide certain security guarantees. All threats of military or political pressure, including sanctions, must be withdrawn. Guarantees from the US and South Korea must be issued, accompanied by an end to joint military exercises and the ultimate withdrawal of US forces from the Korean peninsula.

In addition, diplomatic relations between North Korea and each of the stakeholders must be established, with reconfirmed alliances with China and Russia.

All stakeholder nations would agree to such a package deal in exchange for denuclearisation, provided it meets their strategic interests. They are that sanctions will not be used to incite regime change; denuclearisation will be accompanied by sustained peace and mutual prosperity on the Korean peninsula and the establishment of North Korea as a normalised member of the global community, and; that North Korea will remain a buffer zone and maintain the geopolitical balance between South Korea and the Sino-Russian border.

The time is ripe for Kim to accept the bold challenge of approaching Biden and the remaining stakeholder nations with this blueprint for survival. Because of the country’s unique position, I am confident that, with a viable exit strategy in hand, North Korea can achieve one of the highest sustained GDP growth rates in history.

Kim must only make the courageous decision to embrace complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation in exchange for the chance to introduce rapid economic modernisation, establish a new legacy as a benevolent leader dedicated to the people’s welfare and, ultimately, save himself and his family from demise.

Dr Chan Young Bang is the president of KIMEP University, principal investigator at the DPRK Strategic Research Center and former economic adviser to president Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. This article is an edited excerpt from his recent book, Transition beyond Denuclearisation