Can Kim Jong-un become North Korea’s Deng Xiaoping? Only if Donald Trump doesn’t get in the way

  • Yoon Young-kwan says the North Korean leader has shown reformist instincts, much like a certain Chinese leader from the late 1970s, but he needs security before he can move forward
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2018, 12:31am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2018, 7:21am

South Korea probably endured more political turbulence than almost any other country in 2018. On the domestic front, the new liberal government of President Moon Jae-in forged ahead with measures to address entrenched corruption, and implemented progressive (and hotly debated) economic policies to help low-income people. But these important changes were dwarfed by the wave of disruption from abroad.

Few South Koreans had expected that US President Donald Trump would show such determination in undermining the post-war liberal international order. That order has served as a foundation for Korea’s economic growth and democratic development since the 1960s.

After Trump’s April 2017 threat to “terminate” the “horrible” free-trade agreement which for a decade has backstopped a strategic alliance with the United States that has lasted for more than half a century, South Koreans were relieved to see Trump and Moon sign a revised deal in September. Still, the Trump administration’s trade war with China is certain to strike a severe economic blow to South Korea.

On a more positive note, fears of a military conflict on the Korean peninsula have subsided. In November 2017, some US foreign policy experts put the chances of a war with North Korea as high as 50 per cent. Yet today, the US and South Korea are working with the North to find a viable formula for denuclearisation and a lasting peace.

In this regard, 2018 was a pivotal year. The transition from crisis to diplomacy began when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un responded favourably in a New Year’s address to overtures from Moon; but it owes much of its momentum to Trump’s bold political approach.

Moon had been signalling his openness for dialogue with North Korea since taking office in May 2017, even inviting North Korean athletes to participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February 2018.

During a visit by a South Korean special envoy to Pyongyang, Kim indicated for the first time that he might give up his nuclear programme, and that he wanted to meet Trump to discuss it. Since then, Kim has said he will depart from the “byungjin line” – the parallel development of nuclear weapons and the North Korean economy – to focus solely on economic development.

Why South Korea needs help reining in the North

After three rounds of inter-Korean summit meetings, Moon and Kim signed the Pyongyang Joint Declaration on September 19. Both sides committed to turning the Korean peninsula into “a land of peace free from nuclear weapons and nuclear threats”; and North Korea promised that it will dismantle its Tongchang-ri missile engine test site and launch platform.

Both sides have also agreed “to expand the cessation of military hostilities in regions of confrontation”, including the demilitarised zone on the border and the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea.

Meanwhile, at the historic Trump-Kim summit in Singapore on June 12, the US and North Korea reached a four-point agreement expressing “the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity”.

But while this joint statement marked an important shift in US diplomacy, it was criticised for lacking details about the timeline and method of denuclearisation.

To address these issues, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has continued to meet the North Koreans, visiting Pyongyang four times over the course of the year.

After returning from his last visit, when he met Kim for 3½ hours, Pompeo reported that unspecified progress had been made towards denuclearising the North. But many specialists and observers are sceptical.

Why a second Trump-Kim summit might do more harm than good

What happens next is anyone’s guess. But even sceptics in the US would agree that continued diplomacy is preferable to the sabre-rattling of 2017.

Looking ahead, much will depend on US policymakers’ willingness to be pragmatic in dealing with the Kim regime. A small, isolated and economically devastated country that is surrounded by major powers will feel insecure under any circumstances.

As such, Kim will not give up his nuclear weapons until he is sure that his regime can prosper without them. But while many US policymakers already know that addressing the regime’s security concerns is a prerequisite for denuclearisation, there has not been any real action on this front.

Moreover, it remains to be seen if the Trump administration can mobilise the necessary support from Congress to move the process along.

For example, the US might consider a declaration of peace to end the Korean war. Barring that, it could establish a liaison office in Pyongyang, or extend humanitarian aid to the North (outside economic sanctions).

Or, it could invite North Korean sports teams, performers, bureaucrats and students to participate in cultural events or pursue educational opportunities in the West, thus exposing them to liberal democracy and a market economy. None of these options weakens sanctions, which can remain in place until the Kim regime follows through on denuclearisation.

What Trump must offer Kim to make the deal of the century

Kim has already allowed Moon to address 150,000 North Koreans, decided on an unprecedented visit to Seoul, and invited Pope Francis to Pyongyang. These gestures suggest that he may want to become North Korea’s Deng Xiaoping.

Deng was able to concentrate on economic development only after diplomacy with the US had created a more favourable external environment for China. If there is even the slightest chance that Kim is serious about moving towards a normal state and a 21st-century economy, the international community must not stand in his way.

Yoon Young-kwan, former minister of foreign affairs of the Republic of Korea, is professor emeritus of international relations at Seoul National University. Copyright: Project Syndicate