Self-reliance & belt-tightening: North Korea braces for hardship as talks falter
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Self-reliance & belt-tightening: North Korea braces for hardship as talks falter

IN April this year, having claimed his nuclear programme a success, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un turned his sights to the economy with a determination that saw him break down longstanding diplomatic barriers in the name of development.

Many experts speculated that it was this desire for growth that drew Kim to the negotiating table with President Donald Trump in June after the crippling economic effects of US and UN sanctions began to bite.

In 2017, North Korean exports likely declined by 30 percent and increased pressure from the US on China – Pyongyang’s biggest trading partner – brought about a 35 percent drop in trade between the two.

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US President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un before their bilateral meeting at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018. Source: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Belt-tightening

But any hopes of economic prosperity following the talks have proven to be misplaced, with state-owned media on Monday seeking to ready the country for “belt-tightening” amid signs of stalled denuclearisation talks.

“Even if (we) have to travel a long distance through snowstorms with our belts tightened, we will go straight to the people’s road which was proved as immortal in the process of the 70-years-long struggle and to the road of socialism,” the Rodong Sinmun newspaper said (via Yonhap), reminding North Koreans of past challenges.

Far from showing any signs of alleviating sanctions, the US on Monday released a new advisory reaffirming its commitment to the measures and targeting a crucial revenue stream for the reclusive regime.

The guidelines from the US State Department provide assistance to businesses to avoid using North Korean materials and labour in their supply chain.

Pyongyang is known to take “between 70 percent and 90 percent of the total earnings” from overseas North Korean workers, generating “hundreds of millions of US dollars per year” for the government.

SEE ALSO: Trump-Kim Summit: Regional winners and losers

Blame Game

With sanctions continuing to pinch, Kim is publicly directing his ire at others and deflecting responsibility from himself.

This month, the young leader toured industrial facilities and special economic zones near North Korea’s border with China, often lambasting officials over delayed construction projects or lacklustre modernisation of production lines, Reuters reports.

Kim was reportedly left “speechless” after a visit to a power plant site where he slammed managers for the project being only 70 percent complete despite breaking ground over 17 years ago.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his visit to the under construction Orangchon Power Station in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang July 17, 2018. Source: KCNA via Reuters

He has also criticised economic and public officials for not being committed to their roles, choosing to turn up to opening events but failing to do the daily work.

“Now that economic development is made a main party line, he needs to show results but could have realised things were not so beautiful on the ground,” Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, told Reuters.

“To the people inside, he’s trying to say it’s not the fault of himself or them but that of the party executives, while encouraging ordinary citizens to work hard.”

SEE ALSO: Kim Jong Un chose potato farm visit over meeting Mike Pompeo

While state media drops cautionary reminders of the Arduous March, or March of Suffering, which describes a national famine that claimed the lives of an estimated million people in the 90s, aid agencies are stepping up their efforts in North Korea.

On Monday, United Nation’s children agency UNICEF stressed the need to expand humanitarian assistance for the country during an annual policy consultation meeting with South Korea.

According to Yonhap, deputy director of UNICEF Shahida Azfar emphasized the agency’s need to increase the scope of aid for the North in order to improve its humanitarian condition, which it says remains “vulnerable.”

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol, a North Korean senior ruling party official and former intelligence chief, return to discussions after a break at Park Hwa Guest House in Pyongyang, North Korea, July 7, 2018. Source: Andrew Harnik/Pool via Reuters

Faltering Talks

But the added pressure is doing nothing to progress talks with the US which appear to have faltered in the weeks following the June summit.

Kim chose to visit a potato farm rather than meet with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he visited Pyongyang earlier this month to discuss denuclearisation.

One source with knowledge of the discussions told CNN the White House felt it went “as badly as it could have gone,” with North Korean delegates failing to demonstrate and progress towards the pledge to disarm.

Following the talks, Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley reasserted Washington’s position, telling reporters: “We can’t do one thing until we see North Korea respond to their promise to denuclearise. We have to see some sort of action.”

With North Korea predictably dragging its feet on denuclearisation and the US refusing to let up pressure until it does, its hard to see when – or if – this stalemate will end. Needless to say, it will be the North Korean people who feel the pinch most acutely.