An open letter to Chairman Kim

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An open letter to Chairman Kim


Kim Byung-yeon
The author is an economics professor at Seoul National University.

The eyes of the world — and South Korea — are on you as you sit across U.S. President Donald Trump for the second time. Opinions may differ in South Korea. Yet we are all united in aspirations for permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. I have no doubt the feeling is mutual across the border. You must not neglect the hopes of Koreans on both sides of the border.

The opportunity should not be wasted. U.S. leaders have repeatedly offered assurances that they do not want the North Korean regime to collapse. South Korean leaders have made the same guarantee. The masses in the South also do not wish for a dramatic fall of the regime or abrupt unification. According to a poll by the Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, only 9.9 percent of the people in South Korea think unification should be achieved fast at any cost. An incremental economic integration, however, can benefit both Koreas. Once sanctions are lifted, economic cooperation will pick up. If the cross-border economies can integrate, the North Korean economy is estimated to grow by more than 10 percent a year.

You know well that you must not miss this opportunity. The North Korean economy has changed greatly. I have studied socialism for more than 30 years, but never have I come across the developments in North Korea. Over 70 percent of the common residents live off market activities. Government officials, with salaries of less than $1 a month in market exchange terms, rely on fees they collect for authorizing external or market commerce. The North Korean economy is run in a collusive way as military and government officials must sustain and protect internal and external trade for their own wellbeing. The socialist economy system cannot last since you cannot reverse the trend. There is no return to the old ration-reliant top-down system.

The economy and socialism were most frequently mentioned in your New Year’s address this year. But socialism and economic development cannot coexist. You have done right by condoning market trade and enabling investments. Yet the economy cannot move on with such limited easing. The North Korea economy can fly when it divorces from socialism. Private enterprises should be encouraged to start business and manufacture with legal guarantees of rights of ownership and earnings. The economy will hardly develop under your vision of self-sufficiency utilizing science and technological advances. Soviet scholars cheered for the spread of computers in the middle of the 20th century with the firm belief that the socialist hold will strengthen through computer-based state planning and control. But you know what happened.

The economy is also a better choice than nuclear development for your own good. You must look at the reality with a cool headed: nuclear weapons can feed your people’s pride, but it cannot feed their stomachs. North Koreans are turning into economy-oriented individuals driven by personal interest — they do not wish to part with the joy and satisfaction derived from earning for themselves and their families through business activities. They will all hail you if you give up nuclear development for economic development. The biggest threat to your regime does not exist without, but within: the system and policies that fail to satisfy the desire to live better.


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un steps off the train to be welcomed at Dong Dang Railway Station, Vietnam, before his second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi on Wednesday and Thursday. [EPA/YONHAP]

You must contemplate on inner structural problems. If you cannot come to a fundamental settlement on denuclearization with the United States this time, North Korea will inevitably face a crisis. The results would not be good for either you or your country. North Korea must completely denuclearize if it wants international sanctions to be lifted. I would also support persistent sanctions if you refuse to take denuclearization steps that can convince South Korea, the international community , and the U.S. Congress. You must not think you can use South Korea as leverage. The South Korean government and people are not as naive as you think. As a scholar who has followed the North Korean economy, I can assure you that your economy can hardly last more than two years under the current sanctions.

My advice comes from my deep love for the Korean people. I dream of the day when I can lecture students about their bright future under North Korean skies: the decision is up to you.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 27, Page 31
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