Trump-Kim summit: possibility of North Korea’s developing a credible legal system?

By Jerome A. Cohen

With all the speculation about what positive outcomes might emerge from the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit, we might include the possibility that steps might well be taken to establish a more credible legal system in the DPRK, if only to enhance its economic development and its felt need to establish business cooperation with other countries that have until now understandably shunned the North.

There is no doubt that there has long been DPRK interest in developing a credible legal system, at least for the purpose of attracting foreign business. Both from 1998 to 2001 at Beijing University and in 2013-14 at Hong Kong University, with the collaboration of the Asia Foundation, my NYU colleague Dr. Myung-Soo Lee and  I organized, on behalf of our US-Asia Law Institute, a series of occasional small training programs for North Korean business officials eager to learn how to attract foreign trade and investment to their country. Also, in 1998 I twice took foreign investors that had successfully done business in China to Pyongyang for preliminary business discussions.

While North Korean economic officials had considerable experience with ordinary export/import transactions, they seemed totally unprepared for the complexities of Foreign Direct Investment projects. When at the start of our 2013 sessions I asked the group what they wanted to learn, their initial response was “Why doesn’t Coca Cola want to invest in Korea?” I replied, my head in my hands, by saying “Where to begin?”

Although the North was generally super-cautious about not letting us know the fruits of our labors, I know that our 1998 effort did produce an international commercial arbitration law, and I believe the DPRK did subsequently establish a law firm in Pyongyang to advise on foreign-related business after we spent a couple of days visiting Chinese and foreign law offices in Beijing.

Business law inevitably introduces the notion of government under law. Although the North Korean officials were incredulous about the glamourous offices of one of China’s leading international law firms, they were really stunned when a less prosperous government-owned law firm told them that one of their functions in representing Chinese people was to sue the government for arbitrary violations of administrative law. The chief Korean delegate’s reaction was: ”We don’t have that concept in our country.” Yet we know from infrequent recent reports that some Pyongyang residents have protested against arbitrary actions by the secret police and that their government has tried to improve the situation..

It will be interesting and significant to see whether, in legal aspects as in others, the DPRK will finally follow the paths of China and Vietnam.