What Does Kim Jong-un Want?

By this point, there is little need to state that President Donald Trump was completely out-negotiated by Kim Jong-un. Trump got little in return other than a rerun of statements already made in 1992 and 2005, except in even weaker terms, including a vague commitment to denuclearisation. The president, on the other hand, was played like a fiddle. This has been extensively analysed.

What I think is worth looking into, however, is viewing the Singapore summit and Kim Jong-un’s actions independently of the deal he made with Trump. How serious is Kim about a new US-North Korea relationship? Is there any way at all that we can expect him to concede something on denuclearisation? What lies ahead?

The answer to these questions depend on how seriously we take the claim that Kim Jong-un wants to pursue economic development. Kim cannot pursue economic development without denuclearising- that much is a fact. Unless he manages to somehow play Trump even further, the crippling sanctions that the United States has imposed on Kim are likely to remain. So only if Kim is serious about the economy would he be willing to even go on the road towards giving up his nukes.

An interesting key to this may come from how the Singapore summit was covered in the North Korean state media.

This is hugely interesting. Yes, Kim Jong-un wanted to display the fact that he is now a global statesman, and the Singapore summit was indeed the propaganda coup that he clearly wanted. But there was no need for the North Korean state mouthpiece to cover Kim’s late night stroll around Singapore- and certainly no need for Kim to plaster pictures of massive Singaporean skyscrapers for his countrymen, too accustomed to Pyongyang’s nighttime power cuts, to see.

For a country that has desperately sought to shut down any information flowing into the country, and cover up the fact that North Korea is so impoverished compared to all its neighbours, these pictures must be damning to how North Korea’s citizens view their own country’s economic progress.

In addition, the state mouthpiece stated:

Kim Jong Un, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea and chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, toured various places of Singapore on June 11. Going round the Great Flower Garden, one of the prides of Singapore, Sky Park located on the roof of the world-famous Marina Bay Sands building and Singapore Port, he learnt about the social and economic development of the Republic of Singapore…[he] is going to learn a lot from the good knowledge and experience of Singapore in various fields in the future.

This is also rather unprecedented: Kim saying that he wants to learn from a foreign country. So much for the idea of juche– self reliance! If Kim Jong-un is trying to play the expectations game, using Singapore as a benchmark will be giving high hopes for North Koreans.

Also interesting is a comparison with Deng Xiaoping: “The social order in Singapore is quite good. They run things strictly, and we should borrow from their experiences, and run things even better than they do.”

Singapore is not an aberration. Looking back at the past year reveals that this is part of a broader pattern: Kim’s emphasis on economic development. At the start of the year, in his New Year’s address, Kim announced that now that North Korea has become a nuclear power, it was time to turn its attention fully to its ties with South Korea and the economy- a remark that in retrospect does not seem to have been given enough attention. It was reported that Kim filmed a video of himself crying over the fact that he could not develop the economy, and while this footage has yet to emerge, it would be big if true.

Ultimately, pursuing economic development is also a matter of self-interest for Kim, leaving aside all matters of personal feelings and passions. Reuters reported:

A 2016 report titled “A Study on the Party-Military Relations of the Kim Jong Un Regime,” commissioned by the South Korean Ministry of Unification, noted that the DPRK military might seek a “military-centric government” or intervene to reshape the country’s struggling economy if the Kim leadership failed to provide economic relief (partially from international sanctions). In February 2018, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service briefed the national legislature that that “discontent was brewing” in the DPRK military.

I’ve argued before that Kim Jong-un is not irrational; indeed, if the events of the past year has proved anything, he is supremely smart and cunning. He probably understands that his best chance of dying a natural death in power is to ensure that there is no uprising from North Korea’s people or its powerful military; in the end, even the North Korean dictator may need to do something to fulfil his social contract. His best bet to do so is through economic development. Even if Kim does not want- or is not capable of- a full Chinese-style opening of the country, he must know that he can surely do much better.

So what does Kim desperately need? The sanctions must be lifted. The only method in which this can be done, bar an independent breakthrough with China, is through denuclearisation.

It’s easy for him to make this calculation. Do I want to live to old age? Yes. Will the current path of being a nuclear hermit state with starving citizens maximise my chances of doing so? Probably not.

Trump may not have gained the maximum advantage that he could have from his summit in Singapore, but he also made it clear that Singapore was only the start of a process. At the very least, the summit greatly decreased chances of a nuclear war and can serve at the beginning of more dialogue between all the parties. But Trump and his team can do better in Round 2. They must capitalise on the understanding that Kim does not hold all the cards, and that his regime has economic interests that it has already raised its peoples’ expectations for, not least through the Singaporean summit.

It was often said that Trump cannot be seen to fail at the summit. But in the long run, Kim cannot be seen to fail for his people, now that he has raised the stakes. For Trump, his poll numbers and ego may have taken a hit, but if Kim is unable to deliver greater prosperity, his regime and even life will be on the line.

Can Trump fully use this to his advantage? We do not know. President Trump’s first match with Kim was largely a failure. But since this is not the end, let’s hope that for once in his presidency, the avowed master dealmaker can bring to the forefront his art of the deal. World peace depends on it.

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Categories Asian Politics, Global Politics

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