As US President Donald Trump prepares to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in a two-day summit this week, his effusive comments about the Asian country’s trade and investment potential have left many scratching their heads.
Eight months after their historic first meeting, the two leaders will hold talks in Vietnam on February 27 and 28, with the aim of building on a commitment by North Korea “to work towards the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”. The Asian nation will likely be hoping to see a relaxation of unilateral and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions, while Trump has said he wants the country to give up its nuclear arms, and expects a “tremendous” summit. “With complete denuclearisation, North Korea will rapidly become an economic powerhouse,” he said Monday, via Twitter.
Somewhat sceptical of this statement, risk assessment firm Verisk Maplecroft undertook an analysis to stress test it. In a research note released this week, it found that North Korea, far from demonstrating “powerhouse” potential, is in fact the world’s most perilous investment destination for businesses.
Using its portfolio of global risk indices, the firm measured the investability of 198 countries across the key areas of corporate governance, regulatory framework, property rights protections, and respect for human rights. Across these measures, North Korea performed worse than Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, Syria, Eritrea, Libya, Venezuela, Central African Republic and DR Congo.
“Investors are of course aware of the challenges associated with North Korea, but our latest index data reveals an array of risks without parallel anywhere in the world,” says Verisk Maplecroft’s head of Asia, Miha Hribernik. “Even leaving sanctions and geopolitical risks aside, the barriers to investment are so wide-ranging as to be insurmountable for any responsible multinational organisation.”
To be anywhere near a potential investment destination – let alone a “powerhouse”, the firm adds, North Korea would have to undergo a seismic shift, releasing political prisoners, overhauling the regulatory system and entirely remodelling state institutions. These steps, however, would have the potential to destabilise the country and threaten the very survival of the Kim dynasty. Therefore, they are exceedingly unlikely to come to pass.
“Whatever potential Trump sees in Kim’s regime, the vast majority of investors are unlikely to act on his claims,” adds Hribernik. “The stakes are just too high.”
Investment suitability aside, there is also a dearth of optimism on the trade front, with the probability of any roll-back of sanctions off the back of this week’s talks seen as negligible. These restrictive measures have hit the reclusive nation’s biggest export, coal, while also preventing it from importing everything from petroleum to electronic and luxury goods.
According to Alison Evans, senior analyst at IHS Markit, the likelihood is higher that the talks will result in an agreement to “work towards” peace. She sees other probable outcomes including the establishment of a US-North Korea liaison office in Pyongyang and US approval of progress on inter-Korean projects, such as connecting railway networks, reopening the jointly operated Kaesong Industrial Zone or permitting tourists to North Korea’s Mount Kumgang resort. “However, the US is more likely to offer temporary financial support and withhold substantial relaxation of sanctions until more specifics are agreed in working-level talks,” she says.
Any true removal of sanctions, as opposed to piecemeal sanctions relief, would depend upon North Korea committing to reduce its nuclear capabilities, which Evans sees as “highly unlikely”.
In a note, Benjamin Charlton, senior analyst, East Asia at Oxford Analytica, explains: “It is in Pyongyang’s interest to prolong the negotiations so long as Washington continues to make concessions. A roadmap of mutual concessions may emerge from the Hanoi meeting, but there is a high chance that the two sides will fail to reach agreement on key terms and instead stick to broad-brush statements of intent.”
Although Trump has pledged that he and Kim are ready to “write a new chapter” between their countries, there have been precious few signs of progress on the key sticking points between North Korea and the international community. As such, the Asian country’s future as an “economic powerhouse”, or even as any kind of trading partner at all, looks very distant indeed.