As leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un’s track record in international relations has been virtually unprecedented. On April 25, he met with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok, the Russian port city close to North Korea. He’s met with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in twice, and, of course, U.S. President Donald Trump twice as well. China’s leader Xi Jinping and Kim have met four times since March 2018.
In what looks like conspicuous timing, the Japanese government last week dropped the ambition to apply “maximum pressure” on North Korea from its “Diplomatic Bluebook.” Japan’s attitude toward North Korea has gradually seemed to change over the past few months. The country has traditionally been one of the most hawkish powers involved in negotiations around North Korea’s nuclear program, but over the past few months, Prime Minister Abe has even floated the idea of a summit with Kim Jong-un.
In context, Japan’s decision to drop “maximum pressure” from its strategy toward North Korea may not seem nearly as remarkable as Kim’s various summits. But it is a big change. The Abe government has been the staunchest skeptic of North Korea’s denuclearization ambitions, and has pushed the U.S. to take a hardline towards Kim Jong-un. It is unclear precisely what prompted the policy change, but it may well be that Japanese business interests want to be ready in case North Korea opens up to foreign investments.
On the one hand, this balance sheet is pretty remarkable for Kim. His grandfather, Kim Il-sung (1912–1994), was an avid traveler and met foreign leaders quite frequently, but times were completely different during his life. North Korea was part of the communist bloc during the Cold War, and its leader had more international friends to visit. For North Korea in Kim Jong-un’s time, international contacts have been much more hard-earned.
On the other hand, however, it’s not entirely clear that any of this matters in practice. At least not yet. There are clear quantitative indications that Kim’s visits to China may have led the country to increase its fuel transfers to North Korea. In early April, a new bridge opened between Jian in China and Manpo in North Korea. Construction began in 2012, and the opening was delayed from 2016 due to the UN sanctions regime on North Korea. Not all political decisions are rational, but not everyone expects the sanctions to last forever. Russia may also be aiding North Korea in cushioning some of the burden from sanctions, and it still has not repatriated all North Korean workers from the country.
Still, for all the summits with world leaders, it’s not clear what precisely Kim has gained, if anything. With both Xi and Putin, Kim almost certainly brought up economic exchange and trade, and likely asked for lenient sanctions implementation. Both Russia and China advocate for North Korea on the international arena, pushing the U.S. to give concrete sanctions relief in exchange for steps taken by North Korea toward denuclearization (whatever that might actually mean). Even so, Kim has received little in concrete reward from the summits. Prestige is important, but you can’t really eat prestige, or power your factories with it.
On April 12, at the First Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim gave a speech expressing a great deal of frustration at both the U.S. and South Korea. North Korea’s strategy vis-à-vis the U.S. has, from the beginning, been to flatter President Trump personally, while remaining critical of U.S. conduct. The speech expressed a great deal of frustration with the sanctions regime, and underscored that North Korea won’t take U.S. intentions seriously before tangible, significant sanctions relief. There is news of factories closing around the country as a result of North Korea’s drastically decreased exports, and raw materials and equipment for sectors, such as industry and construction, are likely in short supply.
Sanctions pressure can’t be measured on a binary scale between “perfect” and “non-existent.” It’s much more complicated than that, and North Korea is far from completely blocked off from the world economy. At the same time, it’s impossible to deny that sanctions are hurting the North Korean economy. How much is a difficult question. Many industries are suffering badly, but there are few signs of a large-scale, acute crisis.
Whether that’s enough to push the country to denuclearize is an entirely different question. It depends on how the regime weighs economic development against national defense. It still borders the impossible to imagine a scenario where North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons altogether in exchange for economic gains. The relevant question, then, isn’t “are sanctions working?,” but rather, “are sanctions hurting North Korea enough economically to make the gains from denuclearization worth the cost, in the eyes of the North Korean regime?”
As of now, the answer remains a firm, resounding “no.”