In this recent photo, South Koreans watch a TV news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un should never talk to each other on the phone, or through Twitter. Two unpredictable, nuclear-armed egotists are a threat to themselves and to the world, regardless of the size of their buttons.
Fortunately, cooler heads are now communicating between North and South Korea. Still, this is no time for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, nor the international community, to get comfortable with Kim Jong-un.
North Korea flouts international agreements, bolsters its economy through sordid means and is responsible for ghastly human rights abuses.
As a researcher on social justice and human security in North Korea, I have a reminder for Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as they prepare to meet in Vancouver next week to discuss North Korea: Kim Jong-un runs a feudal gangland, not a nation state. The rules of diplomacy do not apply to the Hermit Kingdom.
North Korea is isolated, hungry, without power and without allies. Yet Kim gathers resources for nuclear proliferation, missiles and prison camps. This is thanks to his business partners. The international community has mistakenly ignored them.
How to deal with Kim’s belligerence? View him as a thug. And like any gangster, understand how he makes money and what really scares him.
First, target those who profit with Kim. Second, empower defectors who can speak to North Korea’s grim reality. Their voices matter both within and outside of North Korea.
Kim acquires weapons by sea, he pays for them with narcotics, cyber-attacks and cryptocurrency. Masterful smugglers, North Korean vessels run under flags of convenience, shell companies process the funds, and other vessels entering North Korean waters deceptively turn off their broadcast identifiers.
I interviewed numerous North Korean defectors for three years. I also tracked vessels doing business with Mr. Kim. From this work, I make two conclusions about how the international community should approach North Korea.
First, Kim holds power through a projected image of ordained invincibility. He is the protector of the North Korean people. He may not provide enough food, and he may send them to prison camps, but only he can protect against pending violence from the United States.
Missile launches and nuclear tests pose little threat to the West. They are symbolic demonstrations of power for his compatriots.
Second, in order to prop up his image as the Great Marshal, Kim collects his military resources below the radar. Illegal smuggling, counterfeiting, insurance scams, weapons sales, cyber attacks, narcotics production and forced labour abroad bring in cash. And there are global markets for all, accessed through shady diplomats and shadowy shell companies. They skirt sanctions with impunity.
Formal diplomacy fails as North Korea relies more on the illicit, rather than the legitimate, international community. Until now.