|John Everard, former U.K. ambassador to North Korea, speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at the President Hotel in central Seoul, March 1. Courtesy of Global Peace Foundation|
Kim regime fears uprising: former UK ambassador to Pyongyang
By Kim Bo-eun
North Korea is keen to have sanctions eased, as the country faces a dire food shortage, a former U.K. ambassador to North Korea said.
After a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi last month failed to produce an agreement, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho told reporters that Pyongyang had asked for sanctions relating to the people's livelihoods to be eased.
North Korea has asked the U.N. for food aid, stating it is facing a production shortfall of 1.4 million tons of food this year.
Last year, North Korea's food production fell to its lowest in more than a decade, according to a recent U.N. report.
"The North Korean economy is in deep trouble," said John Everard, who served as U.K. ambassador to Pyongyang from 2006 to 2008.
"Kim said in his first speech to his people there will be no return to the Arduous March. If hunger reappears, politically Kim will be in trouble. He will be seen to have broken his promise to his people," he said.
The Arduous March refers to a famine in North Korea that lasted from 1994 to 1998. It is estimated to have resulted in at least 300,000 deaths from starvation and hunger-related illnesses.
The regime would consider the food shortage a dangerous situation, as it has concerns over a possible uprising, Everard said.
The former ambassador recalled what members of North Korea's ruling class told him while he was in Pyongyang.
"They said 'never tell ordinary people what we talk about.' This came from the fear that people will turn against them," he said.
"The regime is nervous ― it was then, it is now. It is under constant pressure."
Former North Korean Deputy Ambassador to the U.K. Thae Yong-ho, who defected to the South in 2016, referred to the possibility of an uprising after his defection, citing the influx of foreign media content.
NK intentions to denuclearize
Thae has also said the North Korean regime will never give up its nuclear program, because this is something that guarantees its continuation.
Everard disagrees, saying it is possible Pyongyang would give up its nuclear arsenal.
"If sanctions incurred by the nuclear program were causing such economic dislocation that the regime felt threatened by a mob, the regime might think twice about holding weapons," he said.
Yet, "The U.S. would have to provide very good reasons for why North Korea should abandon its nuclear weapons," he added.
"From the point of view of the North Korean regime, the nuclear program has been a tremendous success, it has prevented attacks by the U.S., and also bolstered prestige of the regime among the North Korean people. In addition, it secured the first ever meeting between the North Korean leader and a sitting U.S. president."
Everard noted it would be difficult to organize North Korea's denuclearization. This is a possible explanation for the failed summit in Hanoi.
"If the process is to move forward, it can only be by the establishment of common ground between the two, as what North Korea wants is different from what the U.S. wants," the former ambassador said.
"This is always the case in negotiations ― that is why you negotiate, you look for ways in which something of the two sets of objectives can be combined into a package that both sides can accept."
In the meantime, he said it may have been fortunate the leaders did not reach an agreement.
"It may have been a relief that no deal was signed, given what happened in Singapore," he said, implying an imbalanced deal could have been reached given Kim's depth of preparation and skill.
Meanwhile, the former ambassador said talks between Pyongyang and Washington may take a break.
"I think right now both sides are feeling hurt. I don't think there will be more contact in the immediate future. There might be a pause in the process ― that would be normal," he said.
Follow-up discussions will likely address the denuclearization steps North Korea would have to take if sanctions were to be eased.
At the Hanoi summit, North Korea claimed it asked for sanctions concerning the livelihood of its people to be eased, in response to it dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear facility.
The U.S. appears to have wanted North Korea to take additional denuclearization steps for sanctions to be alleviated.
Under such circumstances, either side would have to make a concession for a breakthrough.
This could be offering something in addition to shutting down the Yongbyon facility, the former ambassador said.
"There are various intermediate steps that can be taken. This could be dismantling another site, surrender of missiles, allowing inspectors into the partially demolished Punggye-ri and Tonchang-ri test sites," he said.
"Dismantling of a submarine-based missile launch facility in Nampo would be a significant concession by the North."
Everard also spoke about the poor condition of North Korea's economy.
"The North Korean regime appears to believe the root of economic problems is sanctions and therefore sanctions relief will lead to economic prosperity," he said.
"The problem is not the sanctions but that the North Korean economy is so inefficient. Its directed economy with limited use of free markets, its allocation of resources is appalling. Very often, economic units destroy wealth."
He added, "Until there is reform, it will continue to underperform."
Everard said Vietnam's socialist-oriented market economy could present a viable model for the North, which he said has been studying various models for economic reform models.