North Korea's Kaesong joint industrial complex area currently is closed due to sanctions. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

With an American audience in mind, South Korea’s foreign ministry reportedly is commissioning “policy research” on the “current state of North Korea’s steps towards reform and opening.”

Steps? What steps? Let’s stop right here and point out the elephant in the room: Evidence suggesting that Pyongyang is serious about economic reform and opening is modest, to put it politely. And one of the most respected optimists among North Korea watchers, Russian researcher Andrei Lankov, finds that such evidence has diminished following a recent Pyongyang personnel reshuffle.

Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be at all surprising if the leftist, mad-for-unification-at-just-about-any-cost government of the South’s President Moon Jae-in chooses to portray matters otherwise.

After all, the most powerful American of them all is already fully on board with Moon’s view of Kim Jong Un as an economic reformer. Following the North’s projectile launches Saturday, Donald Trump tweeted that he believes Kim “fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea & will do nothing to interfere or end it.”

With Kim feeling so intensely his need to improve his economy, Trump appeared to suggest that the ingredients for whipping up a bargain on North Korean denuclearization are at hand: Kim “knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me,” the presidential tweet continued. “Deal will happen!”

Oh, yeah.

A scoop last week by the English language specialty newsletter NK News quotes the South Korean foreign ministry as referring, in an otherwise non-publicized document, to a need to “adjust the US government and public perception of North Korea by enhancing the understanding of its economic realities.”

Skirting sanctions

The Seoul government, you may recall, has been eager to find ways to skirt international sanctions and resume doing business across the inter-Korean border. Presumably the four-month study will help it settle on arguments for that.

I reflected in an earlier column on how unrealistic it is to imagine that a dynastic North Korean regime, focused on longevity and survival, will take the risks inherent in opening up and reforming a system that, after all, was built on the Soviet command-economy model.

And, really, why should the South Koreans spend money on a four-month study when the North Koreans no doubt would be happy to authorize reuse of the propaganda they’ve churned out for decades to misrepresent their economic status and progress?

In the 1970s, after having kept American reporters out of the country since the Korean War, Pyongyang welcomed a few of us for tightly choreographed visits in which we saw plenty of Potemkin palaces that had been erected to suggest prosperity.

The policy goal was to leave with us the message that Northerners since 1953 had built so much they would never again risk having their achievements bombed to smithereens – so the US troops guarding South Korea could go home with no worries.

In 1989, envious of the glory South Korea had achieved by hosting the 1988 summer Olympics, the North inadvertently wrecked what remained of its own economy by rebuilding Pyongyang in order to host a competing hootenanny, the socialist bloc’s World Festival of Students and Youth.

Starting in the ’90s and continuing into the current decade have come frequent efforts – minor legal changes, official pronouncements and, ultimately, the opening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, currently closed on account of sanctions – to persuade outside investors that they should entrust their wealth to joint ventures with North Korean entities.

That was hard for some capitalists to get their heads around, considering that Pyongyang had never looked back after defaulting on hundreds of millions of dollars in European debt back in the ’70s.

It’s really difficult under such circumstances to see in all this flopping about any seriousness of economic purpose – especially when the new construction extravaganzas the regime publicly takes such pride in are all, even today, in the old state sector.

So I, for one, will not be holding my breath awaiting the results of the new South Korean-funded “research.”

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