The focus these days with regard to North Korea and its Chairman Kim Jong Un is almost exclusively on one of two things.
It seems that the news and commentary are either about the negotiations between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump regarding denuclearization, or they concern the UN and other unilateral sanctions imposed upon the rogue country because of its nuclear tests and missile launches.
There is a great deal of interest in how the present stalemate in denuclearization discussions will play out. The media pour over every little saying and nuanced expression by negotiators, hoping to ferret out some arcane meaning. This is understandable to some degree since the issue is so important.
The South Korean administration of left-leaning President Moon Jae-in is focused heavily on ending the sanctions so as to allow full economic and trade engagement with the North.
The drive behind this is partly political for liberal Moon but it is very pragmatic at the same time. Trade and economic engagement with Pyongyang are ways to mend the South Korean economy, and private sector companies are anxious to take advantage of cheap North Korean labor.
Getting Kim Jong Un to denuclearize or even merely freeze his current nuclear and long-range missiles programs would certainly reduce the threat to security and improve geopolitical stability in Northeast Asia. That is a significant regional good – but denuclearization is not the only critical issue that needs to be addressed.
A full or staged reduction in sanctions would contribute greatly to the struggling North Korean economy and that would benefit the average citizen in the North as much as anything. In the absence of sanctions, the economy will grow itself without a controlling hand from Kim. It would be a North Korean version of Adam Smith’s invisible hand that will do the work of improving the lives of the common North Korean.
Even so, no matter how well the North Korean market economy might eventually do, it will likely be quite some time before it would be capable of supplying on its own the level of return needed to buy the loyalty of senior cadres in Pyongyang and support their luxurious lifestyles.
The Kim regime needs a much greater revenue stream than what its impoverished citizens alone can provide, no matter how much the regime skims their wages and charges them egregious fees and levies of one sort or another.
THE FORGOTTEN ISSUE
Along with other well-known sources of income such as the printing of counterfeit American $100 notes, the export of cheap labor, and the manufacturing of illicit drugs, there is another very lucrative state-run enterprise in the North that gets very little press. That is North Korea’s trade in conventional weapons and spread of nuclear technology that support the Kim regime independent of sanctions.
Pyongyang is thought to be the supplier of the chemical weapons used by Syria
Pyongyang will of necessity continue to sell arms and deal in nuclear know-how regardless of denuclearization or sanctions relief. For detailed examples of exactly what is entailed, see the book North Korean Military Proliferation in the Middle East and Africa by Bruce E. Bechtol Jr (University Press of Kentucky, 2018).
Bechtol documented the astonishing volume of conventional weapons trade and the alarming level of nuclear technology proliferation conducted by Pyongyang.
His book has 68 pages of notes based on open source material. That is to say, information and data were gleaned from sources such as trade journals, unclassified government documents, and even news reports that are readily available to anyone willing to seek out the material.
In view of the sheer quantity of open source material cited, the amount of classified information gathered by American intelligence agencies ought to be staggering – if they have been paying attention. Yet, little of what has been painstakingly examined in Bechtol’s book has ever been mentioned in official government releases – not even in the vaguest of terms.
This is an issue with consequences far beyond Northeast Asia. As Bechtol’s book clearly points out, Pyongyang has been actively engaged in conventional weapons trade in Ethiopia, Libya, and other countries in sub-Sahara Africa. Moreover, North Korea has sold small arms to non-state actors such as al-Shabab, Hamas, and Hezbollah in the Middle East in addition to the Tamil Tigers in South Asia.
Worse, the Kim regime has also been involved in the nuclear programs of both Iran and Syria. Moreover, Pyongyang is thought to be the supplier of the chemical weapons used by Syria of late.
HIDDEN OR IGNORED
It is certainly understandable that, in order to protect classified sources or to prevent adversaries from learning how much is known about them, the specifics of American intelligence efforts about any issue must go undiscussed. However, there are precious few indications that the U.S. government even has awareness of Pyongyang’s malevolent activities to pay them the necessary attention.
While the general public seems well aware of the current Pyongyang-Washington denuclearization negotiations, people appear to be mostly in the dark about the North’s weapons proliferation around the world.
One has to wonder what is going on behind the scenes in the American government to allow the illusion that the North Korean problem would be neatly resolved if only we could get Pyongyang to denuclearize or reach some sort of rapprochement with the United States and the other nations in Northeast Asia.
With diplomatic focus concentrating only on denuclearization negotiations and how that might lead to sanctions relief for the North, the issue of clandestine arms sales and nuclear technology proliferation by the Kim regime remains in the shadows. Is that by deliberate intent or is it by malign unawareness?
That this critical issue is apparently not at the forefront of political awareness and is seemingly not being addressed by the U.S. government boggles the mind.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
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