When Kim Jong Un had his summit meeting with Donald Trump in Hanoi on February 28, 2019, I asked a senior Vietnamese diplomat whether they would have kimchi for their important visitor, whom I did not need to identify. It was a simple question as we all knew Trump likes Big Macs and Diet Cokes which were probably already loaded on Air Force One. My Vietnamese friend said the gentleman from North Korea preferred champagne and caviar to most anything else. Moreover, for the official luncheon, the menu was snow fish and foie gras, though the luncheon was ultimately cancelled.
It was an interesting time as they were meeting in the Hotel Metropole Sofitel in Hanoi where I had stayed for some 20 years and where I was staying the week before the summit. What an experience it would have been if they would have let me keep my suite another week to see the clown show, but I did not bother to ask. Strangely, my modest British company, SOCO, is the only enterprise in the world to have drilled oil wells in Vietnam and North Korea. Sadly, North Korea proved to be economically unsuccessful as we departed when we suspected our oil field tubular steel imports were designated for use in their rocket programs.
Despite the glowing smiles from a few relatively chubby guys, the meeting was a giant fizzle and Trump left earlier than planned. It makes you wonder when a large French-owned hotel forsakes its steady and largest UK investor in Vietnam for the likes of these guys. The more poignant point is the Americans supported Charles de Gaulle in his efforts to regain control of Indochina following WWII. How many times do we Americans keep going to the plate for the French though we must admit they were with us in our own revolution to leave the status of a British colony. Did you know we made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 which added the middle portion of what is now the United States? Napoleon sold it for $15 million to fund his dream of invading Great Britain. Napoleon never carried out his invasion though the British came after us in the War of 1812.
Kim Jong Un may be cutting back all of his dining frills at a time that he is asking his party loyalists to prepare for the “Arduous March” like they did in 1990 when as many as 3.5 million deaths resulted from the famine in North Korea. Not only has the country suffered from the pandemic but also from the border closure to the north which resulted in an 80% drop in trade with China. The result of the border closure was food shortages that may be the most severe in the 73-year history of the country. Soldiers are being discharged from service to work in the mines as free labor. Although Covid deaths are not reported, it has been evident that hospitalization and deaths are rampant from a host of diseases. The fearless leader as shown below in a recent speech stressed the need to beware of “anti-socialist” speech and “non-socialist” phenomena. He does not appear to have missed many meals since he passed on the snow fish and foie gras luncheon in Hanoi two years ago.
Food has always been an issue in North Korea with many brave souls risking death to flee the country and who often found their way to the steppes of Mongolia. Two of my SOCO guys drilling wells in the northeastern province of Dornad came across several of them who were wandering around on their last legs. The Mongolian government gave my employees medals for capturing “North Korean spies” who were delighted to be “captured.” Medals are popular in Mongolia as the presentation requires a lengthy medal “washing” in vodka. Fortunately, the North Korean captives were not sent home to a certain death. In today’s world, anyone attempting to escape North Korea is shot on sight by their fellow countrymen. Unfortunately, starvation makes it even more difficult to move quickly. Moreover, when the Russians leave, you know the conditions are bad. Shown below are Russian diplomats and their families riding a hand-powered rail trolley to leave the country and find their way back home.
On the other hand, the North Korean leadership as evidenced by Kim Jong Un and his wife, put on a great front of prosperity while the people prepare for the “Arduous March.” Two months ago, she made a rare public appearance to mark the birthday of the leader’s father in what could be considered a “super spreader” event.
Moreover, the summer Olympics in Tokyo will not be the same as the North Korean team has withdrawn from the competition. The Olympians, as shown below in their domestic winter games in February, will stay home to focus on nourishment and survival rather than chase illusory political gains. There had been considerable propaganda generated that North and South Korea would send a combined team to Tokyo.
If you have ever been in South Korea in the fall, you will see tons of cabbage being carted around to be fermented with red peppers to create kimchi which I eat periodically and keep in the fridge. The image below in a North Korean village portrays a different story with the harvest focus being one of straw for the winter. The image below was taken from the China side of the Yalu river separating the two countries. It portrays the stark image of the land of plenty in China to the straw of North Korea. Bear in mind the Chinese will not abandon North Korea as stability there is essential to the big neighbor across the river.
In reality, none of us can fully comprehend the leadership and the lack of freedom in North Korea. Apart from the North Korean propaganda images, my first reaction was meeting the oil officials of the country who were virtually adult children given their lives of malnourishment. On the other hand, the history of the country based upon strong propaganda and rabid control of any personal freedoms has created one of the strangest places on the planet. However, we should always recognize that system would not blink an eye to launch a nuclear warhead if they ever thought it would enhance their level of international respect. Lives mean very little as one prepares for the “Arduous March.” Moreover, what empathy could one expect from a dictator who personally executed his uncle with a cannon and had his own half-brother murdered. Thanks to the Nikkei Review for their exemplary coverage of North Korea which, in the age of nuclear warheads, makes it an uncomfortable neighbor of Japan.