Asia Pacific / Politics

North Korean leader's 'field guidance' trips highlight economic focus ahead of parliament meeting

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

In a possible signal of what to expect at a key meeting of North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament later this week, state media reported Monday on leader Kim Jong Un’s visit to a recently remodeled, modern-looking department store.

The report was the fourth of a Kim visit to an economic-related project in five days.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency said Kim “provided field guidance” at the Taesong Department Store in Pyongyang just ahead of its opening.

Pictures showed Kim wearing a Mao suit, accompanied by a coterie of cadres, touring the facilities of, if not for their presence, what could have been a department store in virtually any Asian nation.

In his visit, Kim touted the project as an example of how his regime is providing North Koreans with quality goods on par with the West.

“Now that the modern department store has been completed, it has become possible to provide citizens of the capital with different varieties of more quality foodstuffs, clothing, footwear, household articles, sundry goods for daily use, school things and goods for cultural use,” he was quoted as saying.

Kim also reportedly emphasized that “quality daily necessities and mass consumption goods should be procured and sold in abundance for the convenience of the people so as to satisfy their daily growing desire and wish.”

The report came ahead of two key events this week that could shape any progress in U.S.-North Korea talks: a summit between U.S. President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Washington on April 11 and a session of the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly, the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, in Pyongyang the same day.

The Moon-Trump meeting and convening of the assembly come after the second summit between Trump and Kim in less than a year fell apart in Hanoi over a failure to reconcile North Korean demands for sanctions relief with U.S. demands for Kim to give up his weapons of mass destruction.

North Korea has since warned that it is considering halting talks and may rethink a freeze on missile and nuclear tests, in place since 2017, unless Washington relents and makes concessions.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday that while he is “confident” there will be a third Kim-Trump summit, the U.S. remained firm that crippling economic sanctions on the North would not be lifted until it relinquished its nuclear weapons.

“President Trump has been unambiguous,” he said. “Our administration’s policy is incredibly clear: Economic sanctions, United Nations Security Council sanctions, will not be lifted until we achieve the ultimate objective that we set out now almost two years ago.”

Still, Moon is widely expected to try to convince Trump to offer some limited easing of sanctions as a sign of goodwill, including allowing inter-Korean projects such as the reopening of the Kaesong industrial complex and tourism to Mount Kumgang.

Moon plans to ask Trump to grant “reciprocal measures” to the North after the U.S. reportedly hinted that it could be open to offering “relief from certain sanctions” that could be immediately restored if Pyongyang resumed its nuclear activities — a so-called snapback mechanism.

Last April, the North Korean leader announced a “new strategic line,” under which his country would suspend nuclear and longer-range missile tests and mothball its main atomic test site, while also shifting its focus to building up its moribund economy. But in the months since, Kim has made little progress in kick-starting the North’s economy as the country remains under strict U.N. and unilateral sanctions.

It is unclear how the Trump administration will react to any push by Moon to ease sanctions, even targeted attempts to loosen the chokehold on the country.

John Delury, a North Korea expert and professor at South Korea’s Yonsei University, called Kim’s apparent doubling down on his new strategic line “a positive thing for the North Korean people” and for peace and denuclearization diplomacy.

“But to make use of it, US-ROK would have to let go of the coercive diplomacy/ one shot illusion, in favor of conflict resolution, arms control, economic cooperation,” he wrote Monday on Twitter.

“The temptation now is to think: aha! We’ve got him! He wants development. He showed his hand in Hanoi… He needs sanctions lifted! Let’s hold, even up, the pressure til he comes begging to give us his nukes!” Delury added.

“But in the immortal words of Vlad Putin, the North Koreans would sooner eat grass,” he wrote, adding that until cooperation replaces coercion, “real” and “sustainable” progress was unlikely.

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