Why insecure Kim Jong-un now needs a gentle hand, not tough love, from Donald Trump
David Zweig says Kim’s desire to push ahead with economic reform might have motivated his aggressive nuclear programme – and his willingness to talk peace
Are there grounds for optimism on the Korean peninsula? Looking back at how the players, particularly Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea, got to where they are may yield mild optimism and some grounds for hope.
One view is that the young Kim feared for his regime, if not his life, and realised that US President Donald Trump was on the verge of wielding a mighty sword against his regime. According to a political analyst from China, United Nations secretary general António Guterres sent Jeffrey Feltman, undersecretary general for political affairs, to North Korea in December to warn Kim that the US was fully prepared to attack.
This was less than a week after North Korea test-fired a new ballistic missile it claimed could hit the US mainland and just a day after the US and South Korean militaries launched their biggest-ever joint air exercise. Nikki Haley, America’s UN ambassador, said the tests had brought the world closer to, not farther from, war.
US Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican foreign policy hawk who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned that “war with North Korea is an all-out war against the regime … There is no surgical strike option.”
According to Feltman, North Korean officials were “quite focused” on these statements from Washington and therefore heard his apparent message, that Kim had better adjust his strategy or his regime was doomed. Realising that an American military strike against his country was imminent, Kim shifted gears.
In his 2018 New Year’s address, Kim initiated his peace offensive. He announced that the nuclear deterrence that he had been building had been “perfected” so tests could stop. Still, he warned President Trump that he had installed a nuclear button on his office desk.
He also agreed to consider South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s invitation to send participants to the Winter Olympics, which ultimately brought Kim’s sister to the South for further discussions. In March, he offered to meet President Trump, who almost spontaneously accepted the deal. Just like that, a historic summit in Singapore was on the cards.
In case his meeting with Trump failed, Kim asked to visit China to discuss protection. Suddenly Chinese President Xi Jinping had real leverage over Kim. According to my Chinese source, Xi said Kim was unwelcome unless he agreed to China’s major goal for Northeast Asia – the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
No doubt, Kim was pressured to come to the table. First, by Trump’s version of what international relations specialists call “coercive diplomacy” and by Xi’s willingness to withhold help until Kim met China’s terms.
But given the terrible state of the North Korean economy which is suffering under US-led, Chinese-supported sanctions, Kim has many reasons to emphasise economic development. So, let’s look at an economic reform explanation for these remarkable turn of events.
History shows that socialist countries that prioritise modernisation can speedily redirect their domestic and foreign policy. Deng Xiaoping’s China is the obvious case, but in the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev liberalised Russia’s internal politics and foreign policy so dramatically that he brought down the Soviet Union. Vietnam, too, under the leadership of Nguyen Van Linh, began its doi moi reforms in 1986, under which the country expanded the private sector, reformed agriculture, withdrew its troops from Cambodia and grew its “socialist market economy”.
In March 2013, in the first New Year’s address by any North Korean leader in over 20 years, Kim proposed his “byungjin line”, which simultaneously pushed economic reform even as he accelerated the programme to build a second-strike nuclear capability that could deter a US pre-emptive attack.
His gradual economic reform plans include Chinese-style special economic zones to accelerate foreign investment and enhance productivity without opening the full economy to capitalism, economic decentralisation, expanded foreign trade, railways linking North Korea to Europe and more energy development. But without an end to the sanctions, reform remains a non-starter.
So Kim must weigh his options. Can he undertake major economic reform and still maintain power? Since 2000, the Vietnamese economy has grown about 7 per cent a year and the Communist Party remains in power. But in all three cases cited above, a deceased leader – Mao Zedong, Leonid Brezhnev and Le Duan – could be scapegoated for the extant economic crisis, allowing for a dramatic policy shift.
Kim can’t blame his father for the country’s economic mess, an inherent drawback of dynastic succession.
Moreover, can Kim open North Korean society without its citizens realising that the emperor has no clothes? Still, Kim may realise what Deng understood in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union – that economic growth with political repression can stabilise a tough authoritarian regime.
Then there is the quixotic President Trump, who, having jettisoned the Iran nuclear deal, may not understand how Kim’s own insecurities drove him to develop nuclear weapons in the first place. Will Trump insist on rapid denuclearisation within six months, or otherwise abandon the dialogue if Kim does not concede? Can Trump comprehend that Kim needs US security guarantees as a quid pro quo as he denuclearises?
Can President Moon of South Korea convince Trump that patience is a necessary virtue and succeed where European leaders failed in terms of the Iran deal? While Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, may hope that a hardline posture will derail the talks, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may realise that denuclearisation is a process of give and take that can go forward only if America builds trust between itself and North Korea by lowering Kim’s sense of insecurity.
Dr David Zweig is chair professor in the Division of Social Science and director of the Centre on China's Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. His latest book is Sino-US Energy Triangles: Resource Diplomacy under Hegemony