You are here
Kim's quest to make North Korea normal again
MOMENTS after Kim Jong Un became the first North Korean leader to cross into the South last month, he convinced his counterpart Moon Jae-in to step back with him across the border.
The message? Things will only be done on Mr Kim's terms.
That's becoming ever clearer in the run-up to Mr Kim's planned meeting with US President Donald Trump in Singapore next month. The on-again, off-again summit remains in doubt as the US tries to figure out what it will take for Mr Kim to trade away his nuclear arsenal.
Discerning the motives of Mr Kim - a 30-something leader often lampooned in the West as an overweight madman with a funny haircut - will be key to understanding what kind of deal is possible. Judging from his public statements and state-run media, at least two things appear evident: he wants a deal to ease sanctions, but he won't give up his nuclear weapons until he feels safe enough to retain power without them.
"The word that defines Kim Jong Un's current state is anxiety - fear for both his life and the security of his leadership," said Youngshik Bong, a researcher at Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul.
"He wants to be the leader of an ordinary country, but the justification of abandoning nuclear weapons and missiles in return for economic prosperity isn't guaranteed to be welcomed by the entire political elite," Mr Bong added. "Opponents will be quiet as long as there is a viable inflow of economic prosperity and a sudden improvement of living standards with the lifting of economic sanctions."
In many ways, the world is just getting to know Mr Kim. His recent interactions with the outside world - including two meetings each with Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korea's Mr Moon - showed another side to the brutal dictator presumed to have killed his family members in a bid to consolidate power. He's proven to be a skillful diplomat who can use humour, humility and flattery to achieve his goals.
In March, Mr Kim made his first trip overseas, a secretive journey by train to meet Mr Xi in Beijing - repairing ties with North Korea's largest trading partner. Mr Xi told Mr Kim that China had made a "strategic choice" to have friendly ties with North Korea, and they would "remain unchanged under any circumstances". The two leaders followed it up with another meeting in early May.
Mr Kim's two summits with Mr Moon have revealed even more about his personality. In April, when Mr Kim walked into South Korea, both leaders declared "a new era of peace" and sought a formal end to the seven-decade-old Korean War.
He capped the day off with an address to reporters - the first time he has ever spoken live to the world.
Last weekend, Mr Kim abruptly requested a meeting with Mr Moon to discuss relations with the US. Afterward, Mr Moon said that Mr Kim was worried about whether he could trust the US to "guarantee the security of his regime after his denuclearisation".
The possibility of getting overthrown is a real worry for Mr Kim. US National Security Adviser John Bolton amplified those concerns by calling on him to give up his nuclear weapons before getting sanctions relief while citing the case of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who took that approach before he was murdered in an uprising.
North Korean statements vilifying Mr Bolton and Vice-President Mike Pence for referencing Libya prompted Mr Trump last week to cancel the planned June 12 summit in Singapore. North Korea then flattered the US president the next day, saying the "Trump formula" might lead to a resolution. Mr Trump has since indicated that the meeting may proceed as scheduled.
While Mr Kim has said he's open to "complete denuclearisation", the definition of that remains unclear. He may demand the US remove troops from the Korean Peninsula or American nuclear assets from the region. Mr Trump, for his part, has recently shown more flexibility on how denuclearisation would occur.
Once in power, Mr Kim moved away the doctrine of "songun", or military first, pushed by his father. He quickly adopted a new strategy of "byongjin", or simultaneously pursuing nuclear weapons and economic growth.
"He has his nukes, now he needs economic assistance and development," said Ralph Cossa, president of Hawaii-based Pacific Forum. "That requires the lifting of sanctions. He also seeks legitimacy, and he is getting that."
A meeting with Mr Trump would go a long way to normalising both himself and his regime. BLOOMBERG
READ MORE: Why Singapore summit could still surprise