It’s too early to tell whether the Trump-Kim summit this week will go down in history, but if it does, it won’t be because of the meeting itself or their joint declaration. If that day signals a turning point, the event that will have captured the new era is Kim Jong Un’s tour of Singapore’s tourist attractions on the eve of the meeting.
His visit to the world’s largest glass greenhouse and tallest indoor waterfall, followed by a stop at a Sheldon Adelson casino, was mostly dismissed as nothing more than an entertaining jaunt for a leader with a reputation as a tyrant-cum-party boy. But that was another instance of misreading the Korean leader and his intentions.
Kim wasn’t there for a good time, which he could have arranged to do in secret late at night. What he wanted was to demonstrate to North Koreans and the world that he represents a new, cuddlier North Korea.
Alright, maybe not cuddly, but certainly the kind of country where you can do business and whose leader is an ordinary guy, not the demigod his predecessors were.
No more will North Korea be known for nuclear weapons, famines, repression and gunning down your uncle with an anti-aircraft gun.
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It’s not about to become a liberal democracy either, but Kim has signaled at every opportunity that he wants to transform his country from a pirate state into a fairly normal, Asian-style member of the community of nations, focused on economic development and raising living standards.
The world has been obsessing about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, but it has become increasingly apparent that from Kim’s point of view, the weapons were a means to an end. They are a bargaining chip to get what he really wants, which is the trade and foreign investment he needs as a catalyst for that economic development.
Korea observers are mostly trapped in the past – the country’s long and sordid history of reneging on nuclear agreements, confiscating the assets of foreign investors, engaging in state terrorism and allowing its people starve to death rather than surrender its costly nuclear ambitions or ease the state’s grip on the economy.
As heir to his family’s business, Kim Jung Un was expected to adhere to the ways of his father and grandfather. But my guess is that he knew from the day he assumed the throne in 2012 that he would do things differently.
Even in an absolute dictatorship, a leader, especially a young, untested leader, has to act cautiously. He allowed the nuclear program to proceed, but he also moved to eliminate his father’s old guard while undertaking tentative economic reforms. Among other things, he has followed the Chinese example and given factory and farm managers personal incentives and has allowed a cash economy of small entrepreneurs to emerge.
A year into power, Kim Jung Un moderated his dad’s military-first policy, replacing it with a two-pronged strategy of nuclear and economic development called “byungin." In April, he dropped the nuclear prong on the grounds that it had been achieved. Now, all that’s left is economic development.
Kim is reportedly seeking a Vietnamese-style economic reform that would open up the economy to foreign investment and private enterprise while retaining its socialist orientation: the ruling clique would retain its monopoly on political power and personal freedoms would stay severely curtailed.
The unspoken deal between the ruler and the ruled would be one that characterizes many countries: “We give you rising standards of living, and you keep your nose out of politics.”
What motivates Kim is anyone’s guess.Is he a Korean patriot who wants to enhance his country’s power and do well for its people? Or does he realize that without reforming his country’s pathetic economy, the rule of the Kim family is at risk?
It doesn’t really make a lot of difference. Either way, he needs to open North Korea to the world, and for that to happen, America has to be on board.
If Trump decides the time has come to ease or eliminate sanctions (which for now he’s tellingly not doing), there won’t be anyone else who will veto the idea. Everyone will be happy to do business with North Korea if America approves.
In any event, Kim needs to cool tensions, cultivate ties with South Korea and win China’s trust. He will also need to demonstrate that North Korea respects the international rules, at least when it comes to investors, and to stop threatening the neighbors with nuclear or conventional war, which is bad for business.
And those nukes?
Here again, no one knows what Kim is willing to do, but if he moves ahead with his economic program, they will grow increasingly irrelevant.
An angry, isolated dictatorship with nuclear weapons is a real danger. A country that has nuclear weapons but that also engages the world through trade, investment or ordinary diplomacy is far less of a threat because it has too much to lose.
There are plenty of countries in that latter category (including Israel, according to foreign sources) and the world lives with it. Finessing North Korea’s transition will be tricky, but not impossible.