The Singapore Summit: Possibly a Lose/Lose Proposition for Kim Jong-un?

We’ve known for a long time now what the United States hopes to get from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the summit meeting between President Trump and Marshall Kim Jong-un: “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.” It’s a simple enough goal, though it may be very difficult to obtain, and I’ve previously mentioned that ‘irreversible’ is a goal that cannot be guaranteed.


The real question is: what does Marshall Kim want from the negotiations? We know what the DPRK needs, but what it needs is fraughts with danger for the dictator personally. From The Wall Street Journal:

Investing in North Korea? For Kim, Economic Opening Is a Double-Edged Sword

China and South Korea hope the Trump-Kim summit will lead to an economic windfall for North Korea, but that also poses risks for Pyongyang

By Jonathan Cheng and Chun Han Wong | June 11, 2018 | 6:48 a.m. ET

SINGAPORE — China and South Korea are gearing up to pour investments into North Korea—a prospect that presents benefits and risks for Pyongyang—should leader Kim Jong Un strike a deal with President Donald Trump on giving up his nuclear arms.

With bilateral tensions thawing in recent weeks, China has been expressing support for Mr. Kim’s calls to prioritize economic development and stepping up official exchanges on industrial cooperation. Some Chinese businesspeople are betting on a boost in two-way trade that has been crimped by Beijing’s enforcement of international sanctions against its neighbor.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, meanwhile, has been pushing plans to knit the two Koreas’ economies closer together as a way to foster political cooperation. They include proposals for opening air, road and rail links, and reviving inter-Korean industrial projects that could provide a boost to the North, whose moribund economy is dwarfed by the South’s.

“I think of it as a horse race. The gates for most investors have been closed for years, but the prospect that they could soon open has many anxious to be the first ones out,” said Kyle Ferrier, director of academic affairs and research at the Korea Economic Institute of America.

Much depends on the outcome of Tuesday’s summit between the North Korean leader and Mr. Trump, who has insisted on maintaining pressure on Pyongyang while denuclearization talks unfold.

In the event of a deal that lifts sanctions on North Korea, however, Mr. Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have pledged economic assistance that would allow the North to develop its economy.


There’s more at the original, but the idea of increased foreign trade poses a real risk to North Korea’s policy of Juche, or complete internal self-reliance. Juche hasn’t worked very well, resulting in a bloated military, but widespread civilian poverty and a condition in which civilians and even the soldiers are poorly nourished and infected with parasites. The BBC reported that North Korean men average between one to three inches shorter than South Korean males, and that, among adult Koreans, the height of South Korean women is approaching that of North Korean men, attributed to the poorer nutrition of people in the North.

In the meantime, North Korea has been quick to say that it isn’t seeking economic assistance from the United States. From the same Journal article:

“The U.S. is trumpeting as if it would offer economic compensation and benefit in case we abandon nuke,” Kim Kye Gwan, a senior North Korean diplomat, said in a sharply worded statement last month. “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, too.”

The North Korean press has been running stories condemning capitalism, but that, of course, is simply more internal propaganda, and stage-setting for the negotiations.

The DPRK’s greatest friend, the People’s Republic of China, abandoned Communist economic theory decades ago, and has transformed itself into the world’s second largest economic powerhouse, while still managing to retain the dictatorial control the leadership want.  Chinese President Xi Jinping recently ended term limits on his office, enabling him, in effect, to remain dictator for life, or at least as long as China continues to prosper. Mr Xi has amassed more personal power in China than any ruler since Chairman Mao Zedong.


This is the kind of thing which may well have made an impression on Marshall Kim. That he is a murderous, brutal thug is unquestioned; the man had his own half-brother assassinated. But the DPRK needs to advance economically, and Juche has been holding it back. If the example of President Xi enables Mr Kim to see a way to embrace economic growth and still do as much as possible to guarantee his stay in power, it makes sense for him to do so.

But that carries a huge risk. China was already far more economically developed than North Korea, and has been able to, mostly, resist the penetration of democratic ideas and free expression. Even with that said, ever-expanding trade and communication links will make it more and more difficult for the Communist government to keep the people under its thumb. The younger President Bush’s belief that exposure to democracy will result the the natural spread of democracy may have failed its test in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, but even in Iran unrest against the regime is spreading. Can the Korean Workers’ Party stem the tide of democratization if the public are more exposed to democratic ideas?

Economic development may lead to another weakening of the dictatorial control of the Kim dynasty. It isn’t talked about much, but one of the greater weapons in the regime’s arsenal for keeping the North Korean people subjugated was the general undernourishment of the population. Underfed people are simply less energetic people; it’s hard to mount a revolt when you are constantly hungry. Worrying about from where your next meal will come takes on greater urgency when your last meal was insufficient. If the North Korean people become better fed, it poses greater problems for the military to control them.


The success of this summit is hardly guaranteed, and there are more than a few on the left who want it to fail — they are opposed to anything that would help President Trump — but if it does succeed, and both sides gain something, it could still turn out to be a lose/lose situation for the Dear Respected Comrade Kim.
Cross-posted on The First Street Journal.


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