By Joseph R. DeTrani

A visit a few weeks ago to Cambodia and Myanmar impressed me with the economic development underway in these countries and the excellent prospect for continued economic growth.  Instinctively, I thought of North Korea where economic prospects are problematic.

Cambodia, a Buddhist country with a population of about 15 million people, is finally closing the tragic chapter of the Khmer Rouge.   It’s hard to imagine that during four years, from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge executed over 1.7 million Cambodians, in a horrific genocidal campaign.  A United Nations-backed tribunal in 2014 finally convicted the last two vestiges of this Khmer Rouge genocide – Khieu Sampan, former president and Nuon Chea, deputy to leader Pol Pot.  And with that, Cambodia today is working hard at healing these deep social and economic wounds.

Real economic growth last year was about 7%, with the garment sector, construction, real estate and tourism propelling this growth. According to a World Bank report, poverty is falling and health care, especially early child care, is improving, although more must be done.  Foreign direct investment accounts for much of this growth.  Obstacles still remain, requiring good governance and continued emphasis on the manufacturing and agricultural sectors of the economy.  But the Cambodian people are hopeful and Cambodia’s neighbors and international financial institutions appear convinced that Cambodia will continue to grow economically.

Myanmar’s economic development, since my previous trip over ten years ago, is astonishing.  Targeted economic growth this year is 9.3%, far exceeding forecasts from the World Bank and the Asia Development Bank. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since Myanmar has rich energy, mining and agricultural resources.  This translates into the increasing amount of foreign direct investment in places like the capitol Yangon and Mandalay, where the garment and manufacturing sectors are growing and foreign tourism is increasing significantly.   This was not the case under the previous military dictatorship government, when Myanmar commanded minimal foreign investment and the economy was barely moving forward, with few foreign tourists.

Although the elections this November in Myanmar will be watched closely, there seems little doubt that Myanmar will continue to grow economically, attracting significant foreign investment and foreign tourists.

Having been exposed to these positive developments in Cambodia and Myanmar, I can’t help but compare it to developments in North Korea and the stark differences.  Despite North Korea’s establishment of economic development zones and other efforts to attract more foreign direct investment, North Korea’s economy is hurting, with GDP growth  estimated to be less than 2%, making it one of the world’s poorest countries.  Nascent efforts at economic reform are underway, relaxing central control, especially in the agrarian sector where efforts to incentivize farmers to produce more is an imperative, given North Korea’s history of draught and food shortages.

Most of North Korea’s economic problems are political problems, dealing mainly with its nuclear and missile programs.  These programs have resulted in a large number of United Nations resolutions and US Executive Orders sanctioning North Korea for its nuclear tests and missile launches. Given these sanctions, it’s no surprise that North Korea is finding it difficult to attract foreign direct investments, from countries and international financial institutions. These sanctions are biting economically, especially for the people in the provinces.

What the sanctions have not accomplished, however, is convincing the leadership in Pyongyang to halt its nuclear and missile programs and return to meaningful negotiations. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs reportedly continue to grow in number and sophistication. Recent published estimates state that North Korea has a larger number of uranium-based nuclear weapons, in addition to its plutonium-based nuclear weapons, with continued efforts at miniaturization, for missile delivery purposes. Also, there’s significant media reporting on the progress North Korea is making with its ballistic missile programs and the construction of a larger missile launch facility in the Northwest. In short, North Korea is persisting with its nuclear and missile programs, apparently with no interest in returning to the Six Party Nuclear Talks, with China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the US.

This is unfortunate for the people of North Korea, who deserve the prospect of a better life and for the international community, which will have to coexist with a nuclear North Korea and the ensuing  tension and uncertainty in that region.

It took almost two years of intensive negotiations with Iran, at the highest levels, to agree on the Iran Nuclear Agreement currently  under review by the Congress.  Although North Korea said it is not interested in an agreement similar to the Iran Agreement, I believe that North Korea would not be opposed to the lifting of sanctions which are hurting the country economically. North Korea may also be interested in an eventual civilian nuclear program, as a member of the NPT , committed to the Additional Protocols which will permit IAEA monitors to verify that North Korea has halted its nuclear program and, eventually, has commenced dismantling its nuclear weapons and facilities, in exchange for security assurances, lifting of sanctions, economic  developmental aid from international financial institutions and a dialogue on the provision of light water reactors for civil energy purposes.

Unconditionally returning to nuclear negotiations with North Korea is in the interest of all countries. Having recently witnessed the economic progress in Cambodia and Myanmar and the hope and optimism of the people, we would be remiss if we did not envision an eventual similar scenario for the people of North Korea.

Joseph R. DeTrani is the president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a nonprofit professional organization. He previously was the Director of the National Counterproliferation Center, the ODNI Mission Manager for North Korea and the Special Envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea.  The views are the author’s and not the views of any government agency or department.

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