TOKYO — North Korea wants the United States to know: It’s not about the money.
In the flurry of diplomacy to get the planned Singapore summit talks between President Trump and Kim Jong-un back on track, North Korea has been emphatic that it will not give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for American economic aid.
Earlier this week, Rodong Shinmun, North Korea’s main state-run daily newspaper, sharply criticized American news outlets as “hack media on the payroll of power” for featuring United States officials discussing how aid would flow toward North Korea if it agreed to give up its nuclear program.
“As far as the ‘economic aid’ advertised by the U.S. is concerned,” the Rodong column said, North Korea “has never expected it.”
That was a clear rebuke to Mr. Trump’s strategy of dangling the promise of prosperity if North Korea agrees to denuclearize.
“I truly believe North Korea has brilliant potential and will be a great economic and financial Nation one day,” Mr. Trump tweeted last weekend. “Kim Jong Un agrees with me on this. It will happen!”
Although there is clear evidence that the international sanctions on North Korea are biting, there are several reasons the North might not be tempted by economic incentives alone.
For one, it has made clear that its top priority is its security.
But it also does not want to appear as if it is desperate for handouts.
Mr. Kim is a proud leader who does not want to appear vulnerable or susceptible to economic bribes. And the North does not want to be too dependent on the United States — or any other country — for its economic well-being.
In fact, Mr. Kim’s government appeared so offended by the suggestion that the North should surrender its nuclear weapons to reap riches from the United States that it specifically objected to that idea this month when threatening to call off the June 12 Singapore summit meeting.
“The U.S. is trumpeting it would offer economic compensation and benefits in case we abandon nukes,” Kim Kye-gwan, the North’s first vice minister of foreign affairs, said in a statement days before Mr. Trump released a letter canceling the summit meeting. “But we have never had any expectation of U.S. support in carrying out our economic construction and will not at all make such a deal in the future.”
Two months ago, Mr. Kim announced the suspension of nuclear and missile tests and said he was adopting a “new strategic line” focusing on rebuilding the country’s economy.
The idea is that, having demonstrated last fall that it can detonate a bomb with far more destructive power than those dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, North Korea can now turn toward expanding its economy.
Mr. Kim has introduced market-oriented reforms, and realistically, he cannot accomplish broader economic goals without help from the outside world. If he fails to obtain relief from sanctions through denuclearization, it will be difficult for his country to enjoy prosperity.
But under North Korean ideology, nuclear weapons give the regime power and legitimacy, said Daniel Pinkston, a lecturer in international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University. And the power it derives from nuclear weapons translates into an ability to build up economic might.
“If the state is stronger and more powerful,” Mr. Pinkston said, “then the state is better positioned to pursue and achieve other goals, whatever they might be, including economic development.”
The Americans and South Koreans want to persuade the North that continuing to funnel most of the country’s resources into its military and nuclear programs shortchanges its citizens’ economic well-being. But the North does not see the two as mutually exclusive.
After North Korea initially threatened to withdraw from the summit talks over concerns about its security, Mr. Trump tried to reassure the North on that front but also emphasized the economic component of any deal.
Mr. Kim “would be there, he would be running his country, his country would be very rich, his country would be very industrious,” Mr. Trump said in remarks to reporters.
And in his subsequent letter to Mr. Kim canceling the summit talks, Mr. Trump wrote: “The world, and North Korea in particular, has lost a great opportunity for lasting peace and great prosperity and wealth.”
On Friday, Mr. Trump announced that the off-again-on-again meeting was back on.
The North Korean leader has spoken of his desire for foreign investment and tourism. But he has also emphasized that he wants to retain North Korea’s economic independence, a reflection of the country’s ruling philosophy of “juche,” or self-reliance.
“Dependency is something they are really concerned about,” said Laura Rosenberger, senior fellow and director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “They’re going to want economic benefits on their terms.”
In the past, said Ms. Rosenberger, Mr. Kim even resisted invitations to meet China’s leader, Xi Jinping, because of a reluctance to acknowledge that North Korea’s economy was so dependent on China. Before Beijing began cracking down and enforcing international sanctions, the vast majority of North Korea’s trade was with its Chinese neighbor. Even with sanctions enforced, it still is.
Mr. Kim is also wary of introducing too much economic freedom too quickly, for fear that rising expectations and new wealth might destabilize the North and undermine his own authoritarian rule, analysts said.
The more that North Koreans see the benefits of material goods from outside North Korea, the more they may question the poverty they have endured for so long under the rule of three generations of Mr. Kim’s family.
In that respect, the regime’s vehement rejection of a link between denuclearization and economic assistance is a pitch to Mr. Kim’s domestic audience.
“The North finds itself having to explain why its leader is meeting Trump, the head of the American imperialists,” said Kim Seok-hyang, professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“The leadership had said that possessing nuclear weapons would solve everything — have everyone eat well and live well,” Ms. Kim said.
North Korean propaganda, Ms. Kim said, often compares the North with South Korea, highlighting its neighbor’s dependence on the United States.
“South Koreans may be eating well and have more material things, but that is only because they are depending on the American imperialists, currying favor with them and getting their leftovers,” Ms. Kim said, describing a typical North Korean line.
In remarks to reporters after a meeting on Thursday in New York with Kim Yong-chol, one of Kim Jong-un’s most trusted advisers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emphasized the security that the North could derive if it agreed to denuclearize.
“Many conversations have been had about how we might proceed,” Mr. Pompeo said, “what the path might be forward so that we can achieve both the denuclearization that the world demands of North Korea and the security assurances that would be required for them to allow us to achieve that.”
Invoking the possibility of a secure and prosperous future, Mr. Pompeo made clear that the United States is looking for the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” a formulation to which North Korea has yet to agree.
To change his mind, analysts say, Mr. Kim must be persuaded of a few things: that the country, and Mr. Kim himself, will be safe without nuclear weapons; that it can control the terms of economic engagement so it strengthens rather than weakens the regime; and that Mr. Kim can present any deal as a victory for self-reliance rather than a cry for economic help.
“It’s like trying to convince a devout Christian that the pathway to enlightenment and eternal life is to abandon Jesus for something else,” Mr. Pinkston said. “It’s that profound.”
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