There are new uncertainties surrounding the planned Singapore summit for June 12 between U.S. President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — including whether it’ll happen at all. Reality is setting in for a president who seems to recognize, at long last, that Kim won’t be showing up to Singapore to turn over the keys to his nuclear weapons program — what he’s recently described as his country’s “treasured sword.”
In the meantime, Washington is doing at least something about how North Korea might be induced into making significant concessions with regard to its nuclear program. This topic merits closer analysis, especially given that senior U.S. officials are off-the-mark in their assumptions about what North Korea is seeking economically out of its latest bout of diplomacy with the United States.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has had quite a bit of face-time with Kim, more so than any high-level agent of the Trump administration. Pompeo traveled to North Korea in early April as director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and again in May as secretary of state. Since his visits, he seems to recognize that North Korea is seeking to economically better itself.
On Tuesday, Pompeo remarked that if “we get the denuclearization right, then America would be quite capable of delivering them with lots of things that would make life better for the North Korean people.” He offered more detail on his return from Pyongyang — the trip that saw the release of three Americans that had been detained by North Korea.
“This will be Americans coming in… not the U.S. taxpayer… to help build out the energy grid,” he said. He added that U.S. capital could help North Korea develop its national infrastructure and provide “all the things that the North Korean people need… so they can eat meat and live healthy lives.” (Pompeo didn’t stumble into a novel policy proposal here; his fundamental offering mirrors the Bush administration’s 2003 “bold approach” toward Pyongyang, which was effectively dead-on-arrival.)
Setting aside the highly implausible prospect of profit-seeking and risk-sensitive U.S. enterprises rushing into North Korea and the paternalistic implications of Pompeo’s statement that might offend Pyongyang’s juche sensibilities, the observation that North Korea seeks economic betterment — at the 30,000-foot level — is apt.
Kim Jong-un has said as much during his New Year’s Day address, the speech that effectively kicked off the remarkable Northeast Asian diplomacy we’ve seen so far in 2018 by expressing his country’s interest in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
Kim noted during that speech that “A breakthrough should be made in re-energizing the overall economic front this year, the third year of implementing the five-year strategy for national economic development.”
This observation accompanied another statement by Kim: “We achieved the goal of completing our state nuclear force in 2017.” In effect, Kim was communicating that one leg of his byungjin line — his chief slogan since 2013, indicating the simultaneous pursuit of a powerful nuclear deterrent alongside economic growth — had been accomplished.
“We have created a mighty sword for defending peace, as desired by all our people who had to tighten their belts for long years,” Kim noted, acknowledging the hardship the country had endured to get to the point where the Hwasong-15 — its first intercontinental-range ballistic missile capable of ranging the entirety of the U.S. homeland — was flight-tested.
In April, during another pivotal speech to the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), Kim declare a “new strategic line,” a successor to the two-pronged byungjin line, privileging economic growth. Kim also noted:
Saying that unyielding efforts should be made to develop the country’s economy into an independent economy relying on its own efforts, technology and resources under the line of making the national economy Juche-based and the slogan of self-reliance and thus the process of overcoming today’s difficulty should be made an opportunity to bring a decisive turn in building a self-supporting economic power, he mentioned detailed tasks facing the economic sections.
A lot of this may sound like the usual propagandic pablum seen on juche and self-reliance in the pages of the Rodong Sinmun, but there’s little doubt that Kim is making this a central component of his strategy for leading North Korea. That this shift accompanies North Korea’s pivot toward diplomacy — with South Korea, with China, with the United States — is no accident.
Going back to Pompeo then, one might think that the United States is precisely dangling the right carrot before Kim. After all, if the North Koreans are out for economic development, then what’s not to like about promises of U.S. capital pouring in? Turns out, quite a bit.
Even as Kim is reported to have told South Korean President Moon Jae-in that he seeks something like what Vietnam pulled off in the late-1980s with its ‘Doi Moi’ reforms, it’s unlikely that this model would in reality appeal to North Korea. What Pompeo is suggesting — and what a ‘Doi Moi’ or even Deng Xiaoping-style ‘Reform and Opening-Up’ process means — is ultimately unsettling to an insular de facto Marxist-Leninist monarchic regime like North Korea’s.
Kim, now in his mid-30s, no doubt takes the long view of his regime and seeks survival. If we apply this simple observation in thinking about North Korea’s nuclear weapons, we should equally apply it to its thinking on economic matters. For the regime to survive, North Korea simply cannot tolerate the ideological risks that all-out economic liberalization would necessarily entail.
In 2018, ‘Doi Moi’ or Deng-style reforms do not stop at the mere integration of North Korean factories and workers into global supply chains. Contemporary globalization includes the free — or mostly free — transfer of ideas across borders. The North Korean regime is already fundamentally hostile to everything from foreign reading material to films, with a few exceptions, worried of allowing its citizens to see just how much better South Korea, for example, has it.
In the North Korean context of economic reform and development — and Kim’s new strategic line — these kinds of reforms are a poison pill. Even if the regime were to survive with Kim on top, North Korean regime elites — the so-called 0.01 percent in the country — would be incentivized to do all in their power to convince Kim to hold fast against such reforms.
But economic reform isn’t a one-size-fits-all term and this is where it’s essential that the U.S. administration understand what Kim is and isn’t seeking. Were Pompeo to pay attention to what the North Korean regime is saying for itself, he might have noticed a statement released last week by North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan chiding the United States for “trumpeting … economic compensation and benefit in case we abandon nuke (sic).” The same statement continued: “We have never had any expectation of U.S. support in carrying out our economic construction and will not at all make such a deal in future, either.”
So where does that leave Pompeo and the administration? Are there inducements Washington can offer Pyongyang that mesh with the new strategic line despite Kim Kye-gwan’s outright rejection of Pompeo’s offer?
The answer, I suspect, lies in the recent past and in previous attempts at inter-Korean rapprochement. Kim’s preference for building out North Korea’s “self-reliant” economy under the new strategic line is likely to replicate the model that made the now-defunct Kaesong Industrial Zone special economic zone so successful.
Kaesong was shut down in February 2016 by the conservative Park administration in South Korea, in response to North Korea’s January 2016 nuclear test. Simplified, the park’s model was simple and alluring for the regime: it allowed South Korean firms to exploit cheap North Korean labor on North Korean soil while the North Korean regime saw its coffers profit handsomely. Under his new strategic line, Kim might see it best to not only restart Kaesong, but to set take that model and apply it all over North Korea.
None of this is a particularly new observation about how North Korea, under Kim Jong-un, has thought about economic reform. John Delury underlined this interest last year at Foreign Affairs and, more recently, prominent North Korean defector and former diplomat Thae Yong Ho has also taken note.
Part of the reason why the model appeals so strongly not only to Kim, but a broad swath of the WPK and regime elite is because it allows them to continue living on top of the country’s brutally repressive political hierarchy, without dealing with the pesky problems that might emerge for the regime’s ideological health and long-term survival from a ‘Doi Moi’ or Deng-style reform project.
The good news for Washington in all this is that Kim can’t have his Kaesong-cookie-cutter model take off — no matter how much he and Moon Jae-in might continue to hit it off. Fundamentally, for South Korea and North Korea to increase their collaboration or for North Korea to employ the Kaesong model to integrate its cheap labor into global supply chains, United Nations Security Council sanctions will have to come down. North Korea has minced few words in its distaste for these sanctions, having called them everything from bullying to an “act of war.”
But even with all this said, as long as the United States and North Korea share nothing in common in their understandings of “denuclearization” — a fact that remains true even today, with just about two weeks to go before the summit in Singapore — Washington won’t be able to effectively use this to its advantage. North Korea has many reasons to be distrustful of the United States going into this summit. Indeed, as I wrote recently, Trump’s ‘Libya model’ remarks were a reminder for Pyongyang of why it needed its nuclear weapons in the first place — to avoid the regime change and forcible “decapitation.” By one measure, what Pompeo is offering is regime change by other means.
For now, there’s little hope that the administration will recognize the opportunity North Korea’s new strategic line offers in time to make something out of the June 12 summit, but, should that summit take place and should it result in the start of a phased and prolonged U.S.-North Korea diplomatic process on denuclearization and possibly even normalization, these observations on the country’s ongoing economic and ideological project will be critical. Without them, the administration risks dealing with an entirely imagined North Korea — one that seeks to abandon decades of juche spirit in exchange for wholesale liberalization.