President Trump’s plan to transform North Korea into a modern economy — which one might call the “McDonald’s theory” — has a huge hole in it: It can happen only if Pyongyang improves on human rights. By taking human rights off the table, Trump is undermining his own goal.
One need only look at the low-production-value video the National Security Council made in advance of the Singapore summit to understand how Trump views his historic diplomatic initiative. Trump bragged about showing Kim Jong Un the video, which illustrates a future North Korea flooded with technology, tourism and wealth. The country’s only other option, according to the film, is war with the United States and total desolation.
In fact, though, Kim is likely pursuing a third option: a strategy that trades parts of his nuclear program for economic benefits that will go solely to the regime and Pyongyang elites. Such a deal would fulfill Kim’s primary goal of regime survival. There is no evidence Kim wants to transform his country into something resembling South Korea, where capitalism reigns.
“Their desire to develop the economy and our thoughts on developing their economy are completely different,” said Jung H. Pak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Trump’s “McDonald’s theory of foreign relations,” she says, is based on false assumptions about how the North Korea regime thinks and operates.
To be sure, Kim needs to show his people some economic progress, but he must balance that with maintaining strict control. In the past few years, Kim has allowed small markets to operate independently throughout North Korea, which are improving people’s lives — but are also chipping away at the state’s dominance over its citizens. He may open up a Potemkin McDonald’s in Pyongyang, but he’s not going to abandon his Stalinist model.
Besides, no foreign businesses will want to operate in North Korea under current conditions. There’s no rule of law, no recourse for companies to address grievances, no Internet, no system governing workers’ rights. Western firms will not want to employ North Koreans if they are working as slave labor for the regime’s benefit.
That’s where promotion of human rights comes in. Real economic change requires North Korea to elevate the rights and status of its people, which Kim will do only if pushed. Unfortunately, Trump has taken the opposite approach. In several interviews, Trump has played down