Kim seems ready to negotiate …
On the North Korean side of the equation, three factors might mitigate the risks inherent in a face-to-face meeting — and perhaps open a path to real progress.
First, Kim appears to be ready for serious bargaining now that he is in a strong domestic and international position. Technical success in North Korea’s weapons program helped to consolidate the foundations of power at home while also strengthening his bargaining position internationally.
Second, Kim’s ultimate ambition is to develop his country’s economy, which would require sanctions relief and financial integration. Offering a path for Kim to achieve his aim of a normalized, prosperous North Korea provides a second pillar for a cooperative framework.
Third, given North Korea’s autocratic system, Trump’s impulse to meet in person with Kim opens up transformative potential to jump start forward momentum.
… and confident enough to step onto the world stage
What explains the timing of Kim’s dramatic coming out since the beginning of this year? In a word, confidence.
This came with moments of Shakespearean brutality. Kim ordered his uncle executed in Pyongyang on charges of treason and is thought to have had his elder half brother assassinated in the Kuala Lumpur airport. As recently as October, Kim replaced his No. 2 official, ensuring loyalty across the ruling structure.
The dramatic success of North Korean missile and nuclear testing last year contributed to the young leader’s sense of political confidence. After the sixth nuclear test in September and third ICBM test in November, Kim declared his Strategic Rocket Force to be “complete,” and with it, a reliable deterrent against aggression.
With his domestic position secure and international standing enhanced, Kim pivoted toward dialogue and diplomacy — sending his sister to South Korea, along with athletes and cheerleaders who participated wholeheartedly in the Winter Olympics.
Kim is scheduled to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27. The Kim-Trump summit seems increasingly likely in May or June. Kim’s recent visit to Beijing was a key signal of confidence, demonstrating he can leave the country along with his wife and top aides and not face a coup plot in his absence — as happened to his grandfather in 1956 — or an assassination attempt on the road, which happened to his father in 2003.
North Korea wants to move from ICBMs to SEZs
Some analysts see in Kim’s flurry of activity not confidence, but signs of desperation as sanctions bite and the “maximum pressure campaign” sinks in. But there are no indicators that the North Korean economy is tottering on the brink.
Commodity prices and the value of the local currency remain stable. Travelers are not coming out with new tales of destitution, and there is no surge of economic refugees.
Sanctions, however, keep Kim from achieving his ultimate ambition — what he wants at least as ardently as a nuclear deterrent — making North Korea a wealthy country.
Kim telegraphed these economic development ambitions five years ago, when he unveiled his signature strategic line known in Korean as byungjin, or “dual progress,” which includes special economic zones, or SEZs. The first prong is achieving an independent security guarantee in the form of a nuclear deterrent, which has progressed incontrovertibly under Kim’s leadership.
But the second promise of byungjin is to develop the civilian economy, and that has failed to keep up with the extraordinary pace of missile testing. Although North Korea has witnessed modest growth under Kim, it remains a poor and backward country that lags far behind its East Asian neighbors. Until Kim gets a security breakthrough that allows for lifting sanctions and integrating into the regional and global economy, North Korea will never catch up.
Kim’s new diplomacy should be understood as part of the unfolding of byungjin, and probably signals a pivot from security to prosperity, isolation to integration, ICBMs to SEZs.
Working from the top down
Kim’s political confidence and economic ambitions have created an opening for the Trump administration to get clear, simple and significant steps on denuclearization as the United States and South Korea make reciprocal moves toward peace and development.
Impulsive or not, Trump’s decision to meet with Kim is well calibrated to the hierarchical nature of the North Korean system, where progress requires starting at the top. In this regard, Trump’s unconventional willingness to meet face to face with the “supreme leader” himself may turn out to be an asset rather than a liability.
There will be symbolism, lots of symbolism
North Korean propaganda organs can be expected to play up the summit as a victory for their country and its leader. But for Kim, the substance of the agreements reached as well as the symbolism of sitting down with the president of the United States will allow him to accelerate the pivot from ruling over a poor, militant state to governing a normal, prospering one.
This kind of shift in focus from power to wealth has been at the heart of the East Asian model of success since the end of the Second World War. In historical terms, North Korea would be conforming to the regional norm, albeit belatedly. Kim appears ready to make that transition, and, understood in that light, the summit presents a rare opportunity for progress.
John Delury is associate professor at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul.