North Korean defectors caution US against Kim strategies

As Mike Pompeo returns to Pyongyang for talks, scepticism grows about Kim’s intentions

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo on his way to Pyongyang, North Korea at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on Thursday. Photograph:  Andrew Harnik/Reuters

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo on his way to Pyongyang, North Korea at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on Thursday. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/Reuters

 

In the weeks since his landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump has been buoyant, maintaining that talks aimed at disarming the reclusive regime were “going well” and that “all of Asia is thrilled”.

One constituency, however, that does not share the US president’s enthusiasm are the people who know North Korea the best: its own citizens.

Those who have lived and suffered under the regime in Pyongyang are increasingly convinced the bout of diplomacy is smoke and mirrors and the young marshal will never abandon his arsenal of nuclear weapons.

On Thursday, Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, lands in Pyongyang for the first high-level meeting between two sides since Mr Trump and Mr Kim last month pledged to work towards “complete denuclearisation”.

The challenge for Mr Pompeo will be to maintain diplomatic momentum by hammering out a specific timetable for the regime to dismantle its arsenal of warheads and its nuclear facilities.

But for many North Koreans, such plans are misguided. “Kim Jong-un will never, ever denuclearise,” said Park Mija, who fled North Korea during the first year of Mr Kim’s reign in 2012.

Scepticism

The comments echo growing scepticism in the US intelligence community about Pyongyang’s intentions.

In the past week, a slew of reports have indicated that North Korea continues to develop and hone its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons capabilities, despite the recent rapprochement in the region.

Many are growing anxious that the US could again fall prey to Pyongyang’s longstanding strategy of dragging out talks as it seeks economic concessions.

“So many people are delusional right now. Kim only wants economic support - and South Korea is already trying to do that,” said Hyeonseo Lee, a prominent North Korean defector and author of a 2015 bestseller, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story.

Since the Singapore meeting between Mr Kim and Mr Trump, South Korea has forged ahead with inter-Korea exchanges aimed at bolstering economic co-operation between the two erstwhile adversaries.

South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in has already outlined plans to connect North Korea not only with the South but also the wider region. North Korea has responded in kind by agreeing to host multiple cross-border exchanges, including a reunion in August of families divided by the Korean war.

Adjusting propaganda

The regime has also adjusted its propaganda to reflect the changing environment. Criticisms of the US and South Korea – once standard fare in state media – have disappeared in recent months, raising hopes genuine change is afoot.

But Choi Jung-hoon, a former North Korean army officer now in the South, said: “The current rapprochement is just a show for Kim and a political strategy for Trump in the run-up to the US midterm elections in November.”

Park Sang-hak, a North Korean who runs an activist group in Seoul, echoes the sentiment, saying Mr Trump’s attitude will change once the elections are over. “I believe if Mr Pompeo fails to persuade the North to pursue complete denuclearisation, the Pentagon will deal with the matter,” he said.

The comments highlight the high-stakes nature of Mr Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang. Mr Trump has made clear he reserves the right to use military options against North Korea should negotiations fail.

Ms Lee, the writer, stressed that despite her doubts, she hoped diplomacy would win and that North Korea genuinely sought to denuclearise and build its economy. “I hope I am wrong,” she said, “so that I can go home.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018