Over recent weeks, events involving North Korea have been dramatic, to say the least. In rapid succession, we have gone from Pyongyang’s surprise participation in the Winter Olympics to a highly choreographed and visually compelling meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas. This is all prelude to an imminent Summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. All of this represents a sudden break in a narrative that began with the Korean War, followed by 70 years of deep hostility and hair-trigger military preparations on both sides of the DMZ, and culminating in Pyongyang’s threats to attack the US mainland.
What are we to make of it all? The answer largely rests in how we read the intentions of North Korea’s dictator. The established view of American experts – government officials, intelligence analysts, academic specialists—goes something like this. Kim Jong-un is heir to a family dynasty that seeks one thing above all else—survival of the regime and with it his personal power. To accomplish that, the Kim family has adopted the most extreme measures: create a slavish personality cult around the leader; seal the country off from all outside influences; give absolute economic priority to the military, the police and regime officials; sacrifice the rest of the population even if it means that millions starve; and maintain a vast gulag of political prisons. Finally, the regime has devoted an all-out effort to building nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles capable of threatening South Korea, Japan and the US. North Korean state media bombards the population with images of a hostile world (led by the US) intent on destroying the country. The resulting strategy has produced the only nuclear weapons tests of the 21st century, widespread international condemnation, and a panoply of UN economic sanctions. But as long as China, Pyongyang’s vital source of energy and capital remains supportive, it seems to work.
This has all led to a prevailing judgement in Washington that Kim Jong-un will never give up his hard-won nuclear and missile capabilities—his ”treasured sword”—for fear of what it would mean for the security of the state and the survival of the regime. If the established view of North Korea is correct, the Kim-Trump Summit is doomed to failure.
However, there is an alternative, and increasingly plausible, strategic narrative consistent with the recent cascade of events. Some analysts are noting that the North Koreans have been making a number of official and semi-official statements that contradict the regime’s assertions that it will never give up its new capabilities—and instead portray these military programs as potential bargaining chips to win far-reaching economic benefits. Since 2013, Kim has publicly affirmed his determination to build a prosperous future for his destitute country. In his conversations with South Korea’s President Moon, Kim reportedly observed that the South has much modern infrastructure (railroads, roadways, power grids etc.) and that he would be “embarrassed” to have Moon visit the North and see how primitive the infrastructure is there. North Korean analysts in discussions with US scholars have insisted that Pyongyang’s military buildup was a necessary precursor to negotiations. Only when North Korea was in a position to credibly threaten America, would the US take it seriously. Kim has now declared that the buildup is “complete” and now he is prepared to talk.
The proposition that Kim is actually serious is supported by the experience of other countries. When the Soviet leadership under Gorbachev concluded they were falling irreversibly behind the West — economically, technologically, and militarily – they undertook profound reforms that produced a post-Soviet world. Something similar happened in Burma, a very different country but one where a long-entrenched military junta — faced with the reality that their country was becoming an economic backwater — chose to give up significant power. There are many signs that North Korean sanctions are beginning to bite. One striking indicator is the appearance of “ghost ships” off the coast of Japan. These are derelict fishing boats with crews either dead of nearly dead from starvation who went to sea completely unequipped but out of desperation.
Beyond all this lies another consideration that has received little notice. Korean analysts, when pressed, will reveal a deep, engrained suspicion of China born of long historical experience. Distrust of China is “in the Korean DNA” – both north and south. North Korean officials have confided to their southern counterparts how much they resent their economic and strategic dependence on China – and how much they want to reduce or eliminate it. If you follow the logic of that imperative it leads to a strategy of reconciliation between the two Koreas and with the US. That is the way to open North Korea to the economic benefits that come from foreign investment, World Bank assistance, and technological transfer from South Korea and the West. Pyongyang has to envy the fact that Seoul trades with China, but is not dependent on it. And, by the way, the same logic suggests (despite decades of demands that US forces leave Korea) that Pyongyang will want the US military to stay on the peninsula after a peace agreement is signed. In case you missed it, Kim has suggested precisely that to President Moon.
If the foregoing is correct, it suggests two immediate conclusions: (1) Kim is supremely confident of his ability to manage deep systemic change and (2) we are on the cusp of a profound change in the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula – and of all of East Asia.