Trump doesn’t realize how hard it’ll be to ‘normalize’ North Korea

Trump doesn’t realize how hard it’ll be to ‘normalize’ North Korea

To sell Kim Jong-un a vision for his country of cooperation rather than defiance, President Trump presented him with a slick, Hollywood-produced video. “The doors of opportunity are ready to be opened,” it declared, showing the barren North Korean coast transform into a new Riviera, with speedboats racing through the waters before luxury high-rises. “A new world can begin today, one of friendship, respect and goodwill.”

It’s typical Trump: Unorthodox and out-of-the-box. For 65 years after the Armistice paused the Korean War, generations of politicians and strategists have coerced and coddled, raged and reacted, with little success to show for their efforts.

Trump prides himself on breaking the mold. He promised to bring business acumen to government, so why not diplomacy? If real estate made Trump great, and business can make America great again, why can’t development also make North Korea great?

It’s a compelling vision, but it’s doomed to fail. History isn’t so easily cast aside. North Korea has for generations been the world’s most isolated country.

In some ways, the impact of that isolation is obvious: While South Koreans physically grew, malnutrition has caused North Koreans to shrink. What once was a common language is evolving into two as separation makes regional dialects more pronounced. But those obvious differences overshadow one more pernicious: ignorance.

Smuggled DVDs and Chinese businessmen might give North Koreans a window into the outside world but, in practice, North Koreans have little idea how that world works.

Consider North Korean defectors who make it South Korea: Many do not know how to function in society. Credit cards are a foreign concept. So, too, are bank accounts.

Budgeting? Buying a house? Mailing a letter? Leasing an apartment?

Their innate desire for liberty may run deep but, in practice, learning to live as an individual autonomous from the state is for many a bridge too far — at least for the foreseeable future.

The South Korean government seeks to ease the transition for defectors, but the knowledge deficit is often so deep that, for many, it cannot be overcome. Resentment runs deep, both among refugees unable to cope and neighbors for whom the North Koreans’ ignorance of society frustrates.

These defectors aren’t the only canary in the coal mine. Consider previous attempts to bolster tourism in North Korea. Most recently, of course, is the case of Otto Warmbier, a young American tourist accused of stealing a poster and ultimately murdered in custody. That made headlines, but an earlier episode makes Trump’s vision even more questionable.

Twenty years ago, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung made reconciliation with North Korea his top priority. His efforts culminated in a secret $200 million transfer to Pyongyang, a subsequent summit there with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and ultimately a Nobel Prize.

To drive rapprochement, North Korea created a special tourist zone for South Koreans at Mount Kumgang, 30 miles north of the DMZ. Within a decade, a million South Koreans made the day trip to a resort there, infusing the North Korean economy with desperately needed hard currency. That screeched to a halt, however, when a North Korean soldier shot dead a 53-year-old South Korean woman who strayed off a designated walking path in 2008.

In 2003, South Korea subsidized construction of the Kaesong Industrial Park in six miles north of the Demilitarized Zone. The idea was simple: South Korean companies could get cheap labor, and North Korea could gain hard currency.

Within a decade, more than 100 South Korean firms employed more than 50,000 North Koreans. Capriciousness again sunk the project. It was bad enough when, amidst a diplomatic spat, North Korea withdrew all its workers but they then banned food deliveries to South Korean managers and caretakers who remained.

It will take generations for North Koreans to adjust to modern society. Until they do, foreigners will need to manage projects and resentment will build.

Trump’s video asks of Kim Jong-un, “Will this leader choose to advance his country and be part of a new world?” That’s a noble challenge, but by taking human rights off the table and refusing to demand closure of North Korea’s concentration camps, Trump acknowledges its rejection. Repression’s legacy runs deep and is not easily erased by a luxury hotel, nor will tourists flock to a country where a wrong turn can be a capital crime.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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