NAGANO–Some of the lessons were obvious when North Korea lashed out this week at Kenneth Bae, saying a book the Korean-American pastor has published and critical remarks he’s made in interviews following his release from prison in Pyongyang could endanger other American citizens still in custody.

One perennial lesson that was reinforced once more: If you’re a foreign government, especially an enemy government, you need to discourage citizens from visiting North Korea for whimsical or downright wacko reasons. Bae had been jailed on account of a scheme of secret Christian missionary work designed to culminate in “praying down the walls” of the regime, à la the biblical Joshua at Jericho.

Another old lesson reinforced: Don’t be quick to expend diplomatic capital by sending former presidents or other bigwigs to bail out naïve or deluded visitors who have fallen afoul of the authorities. You don’t want to tempt the regime to round up more hostages.

But to the extent Pyongyang’s words were read closely abroad, an additional, different lesson is likely to have been driven home, not only to governments but to corporate and private investment and trade interests: Ignore claims that North Korea’s third generation leader is serious about carrying out economic change. In a country lacking commitment to the rule of law you may want to keep your wallets tightly clutched in your hands.

Kenneth Bae speaks upon returning from North Korea during a news conference at U.S. Air Force Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Fort Lewis, Washington, United States on November 8, 2014. REUTERS/David Ryder/File Photo
Kenneth Bae speaks upon returning from North Korea during a news conference at U.S. Air Force Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Fort Lewis, Washington, United States on November 8, 2014. REUTERS/David Ryder/File Photo

Bae was released in 2014 to US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on “humanitarian” grounds after having served only two years of a 15-year sentence at hard labor. He’s found good things as well as bad to say about his erstwhile captors, but clearly what they felt entitled to was all good.

An article released by the official Korean Central News Agency on Monday threatened that North Korea “will neither make any compromise nor conduct negotiations with the US over the issue of American criminals nor take any humanitarian measure” as long as Bae “keeps spouting invectives.”

Worse, if the US makes anti-Pyongyang propaganda on the excuse of promoting human rights, the fate of American prisoners “will become more miserable.” Not only that but American criminals now in custody – there are two, serving sentences of 10 and 15 years – “will never be able to go back to the US.”

Instead of threatening to extend already adjudicated sentences to life without possibility of parole, why not just come out and acknowledge that the law is whatever the leadership says it is?

To some who have had business dealings with the country, such an announcement would not come as a huge revelation. Rather, the widespread perception that North Korea’s rules, more than those of most other countries, are made to be broken is one major reason (international sanctions, of course, are another) that there has been little investment there by foreign capitalists.

That perception is based not particularly on criminal cases but more on such contract-law cases as the country’s 1970s default on billions of dollars’ worth of foreign debt. Being known as a deadbeat was less of a problem back then, at a time when the Soviet bloc subsidized the North Korean economy. That largesse suddenly all but ended and the economy collapsed with the fall of communism in Europe as the 1990s began.

Founding leader Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and many outsiders expected that his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, would choose Chinese or Vietnamese-style reforms. Kim Jong-il understood to some extent the economic imperative to institutionalize the rule of law, as he revealed in a 1998 conversation with visiting ethnic Koreans from Japan. But his follow-through on that and on economic development in general was quite limited.

Kim Jong-un, who took power after his father Kim Jong-il died at the end of 2011, keeps saying that developing a nuclear weapons arsenal provides the deterrence and security he needs so that he can devote himself to parallel development of the economy. He has a term – byungjin – for pursuing the two simultaneously.

However, if the youngest Kim understands the need to institutionalize legal protections, he’s been shy about showing it. Under his watch, we’ve seen bloody political purges such as the one in which he had his uncle, Jang Song-taek executed. We’ve also seen a couple of high-profile cases of foreign companies – one Chinese, one Egyptian – that lost control of the North Korean businesses they had invested in and built.

“Absence of a government of laws,” Australian jurist Michael Kirby, who oversaw a recent United Nations study of North Korean human rights, said in a speech, means “chaos, anarchy or a government of power, money or unbridled discretion.” Added Kirby: “It would be intolerable for business if it could not predict generally its legal obligations and entitlements by reference to the law.”

A word to the wise in Pyongyang, assuming such there be.

Veteran Asia correspondent Bradley Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

Leave a comment