‘Many people will die’: N Korea ‘will not survive a year’
A HIGH-RANKING former member of the North Korean government says the harsh economic sanctions imposed on the country could be enough to wipe it out within 12 months.
Ri Jong-ho, a former economic official appointed by Kim Jong-un's father and predecessor Kim Jong-il, says the United Nations' trade restrictions are so strong that it could cripple the isolated nation.
"I don't know North Korea will survive a year with these sanctions," he said.
"Many people will die."
Mr Ri said the sanctions put in place this year were on a "totally different level" due to China closing all North Korean businesses in the country, banning exports of petroleum products and cutting off textile imports.
"It has blocked the market going in and out. Tens of hundreds of companies have been suspended," he said.
"The impact is significant. That's why they felt threatened and launched missiles."
Mr Ri said "everything had stopped" in terms of economic activity in North Korea.
"There is no electricity, yet they are spending their money on military arms," he said.
"All of the factories that require steel have stopped, so it is like a domino.
"There is hardly power generation so how can the factories run?
"The people are desperate for power generation. They want to run farms.
"When you look at the aerial view of the Korean peninsula, it is pitch black in North Korea."
Speaking in New York this week at the Asia Society, which is headed by former prime minister Kevin Rudd, Mr Ri gave a rare insight into the Kim regime and the fears and insecurities that makes it so volatile.
Mr Ri - a former official with Office 39, a secretive trading organisation under direct control of the Kim family - defected from the hermit kingdom in 2014.
He fled to South Korea, then the US, as Kim Jong-un was executing hundreds of high-level officials, many of whom had been loyal to Kim Jong-il, like himself.
"It was a big shock to us and some people collapsed watching that," Mr Ri said.
"They shot them in so many pieces there was not enough of a body left for burial."
He said he had spent 30 years at "centre stage" in North Korea and watched the economic decline that has put its people on the brink of starvation.
WHY NORTH KOREA IS SO PARANOID
Mr Ri said Kim Jong-un's provocative nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests were all about protecting his regime and stopping a South Korean invasion.
"The North Koreans always think the South Koreans are their biggest enemy and they are always feeling threatened," he said.
"They are always thinking there is a threat that they can be invaded and they are keeping their eyes on this situation.
"In order for them to have greater power, they don't have the economic power so they built up their naval force."
Similarly, opening up the economy presents a grave risk to Mr Kim's power.
"If they open up their market, the worry is that they would destroy their dictatorship regime," Mr Ri said.
WILL KIM USE HIS WEAPONS?
Mr Ri does not believe that Mr Kim is serious about using his weapons against the US; instead they are being developed more as a political tool.
"North Korea has always said, 'We don't want war but we are not afraid to engage in a war; we shoot missiles to keep our freedom'.
"Therefore, the people are brainwashed to a great degree.
"Kim Jong-un says the reason for deploying nuclear weapons is so that we can survive. We need them for defence, for offence, for politics.
"The talk of war has been present for decades, it nothing new. North Korea has said hundreds of thousands of times that they were going to blow up the US.
"But North Korea is not competitive against the US … It developed nuclear power not to confront the US but to make their power greater than South Korea's. Not to attack the US; it's too big.
"North Korea wants to keep the truth very secretive so other countries would not know what they really think."
US President Donald Trump has responded to North Korea's increasing weapons development by threatening to rain "fire and fury" down on the nation.
And while both Mr Trump and Mr Kim have been belligerent, Mr Ri believes their comments cannot be compared.
"This is not peer to peer belligerence. This is like a child and adult dispute," he said.
"Kim Jong-un wants some help from the US, in order for him to solidify his regime.
"There greatest fear is that the royalty regime would collapse if they were to bring in Russia or China militarily to fight against the US.
"They feel insecure."
WHY NORTH KOREAN ECONOMY COLLAPSED
North Korea's economic problems began well before the UN sanctions - and they are problems largely of Mr Kim's own making.
Mr Ri remembers a time when the North Korea was thriving thanks to vibrant steel and cement factories.
"In the 1970s, the [North Korean] economy was vibrant and the factories were running and electricity was available everywhere," he said.
Mr Ri said Kim Jong-il, who was leader from 1997 to 2011, did not have a good sense about the economy.
Its relationship with its main trading partner and ally China began when the Kim family watched its neighbour embrace capitalism.
"North Korea did not want to mix with this capitalistic nation," Mr Ri said.
"Kim Jong-il decided North Korea should open up to some degree - even a socialistic nation has to generate profit - and he set up some measures, but there is a sort of royalty regime in North Korea that doesn't work so well with the market system.
"Because of this incompatibility, the economy is not doing well still.
"When Kim Jong-il died, the economy collapsed as well."
Meanwhile, South Korea developed to the extent that its was among the top 20 nations by gross domestic product.
"Many people have started to starve," Mr Ri said.
Relations soured further in 2014 when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited South Korea before North Korea.
"Kim Jong-un took it as a humiliation, a personal insult. He called Xi a son of a bitch, called Chinese people as 'those sons of bitches Chinese'."
China is similarly unimpressed with its ally because its sees it as building its military when it should be feeding its citizens.
"Now China has blocked trade, which has never happened before, so this is the very worst point of their relationship," Mr Ri said.
Mr Kim resolved to turn its trade away from China and towards Russia and Southeast Asia, but he soon found that trading in Russia was "not so convenient".
"If North Korea opened itself up like China did, it would not be in crisis.
"It shows how important one leader is and shows that the Kim Jong-un leadership is a failed leadership."
WHAT NORTH KOREA REALLY WANTS
While it uses its state-controlled media to spew threats at the US and other enemies, Mr Ri says Mr Kim actually lacks confidence and what he craves most is respect.
Its provocative tests of missiles and nuclear weapons are all part of this strategy.
"They desperately want relations with the US," Mr Ri said.
"The leader wants to keep the leadership for a long time. In order for him to stay in the leadership for that long, he believes he needs to have a friendly relationship with the US.
"They want to be part of the international community."
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop expressed a similar view when in New York for the United Nations General Assembly last month.
"Obviously, [North Korea] wants to be in the best possible negotiating position and that why we're seeing such overt display of capability when it comes to ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons," she said.