North Korea’s image has softened but is there any real change?
Despite warmer US-Korean links, Pyongyang is stalling on denuclearisation
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and US president Donald Trump meeting on June 12th, 2018: Kim has clearly looked at the economic success racked up by China and South Korea. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
In a dramatic softening of approach by Kim Jong-un, 2018 has seen the North Korean leader transformed from an evil megalomaniac who ordered the killing of his own brother and overseer of a network of inhumane gulags, into a potential peacemaker and Donald Trump’s bff.
Having begun the year with the description of Trump as a “idiot dotard” still ringing through the region, by September US president Donald Trump was preaching his love for the leader formerly known as “little rocket man”.
“He [Kim] wrote me beautiful letters. They were great letters. And then we fell in love,” Trump wrote.
Since those heady days the process of achieving peace has largely stalled, and 2019 looks set to be all about getting impetus back into the talks to denuclearise. South Korea and China will have a major role to play in this, but the key relationship is going to be the US and North Korea.
Tensions started to ease with both Koreas marching under a unified flag at the Winter Olympics in January. Come April and Kim met South Korean president Moon Jae-in at the demilitarised zone (DMZ), making a jaunty jump across the line dividing the peninsula. By June, Kim was being feted in the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore after meeting Trump for the first-ever summit between the two cold war enemies.
Suddenly talk of denuclearisation was in the air.
The summit in Singapore was all about show, and although it ended with North Korea agreeing to denuclearise, the terms of the Singapore Declaration were vague and there has been scant progress.
In July, the remains of American servicemen from the 1950-1953 Korean War were returned to the US.
North Korea has stuck to its pledge not to test new missiles. It says it has destroyed its nuclear testing ground and also appears to have dismantled the Sohae satellite launch station. But there has been no progress on formally ending the Korean War, which ended in a ceasefire but not a peace treaty, and verifiable denuclearisation.
In recent weeks there has been much talk about whether Kim Jong-un will make the first ever trip to South Korea by a North Korean leader, but the Americans and the South Koreans will want to see more progress on denuclearisation before that takes place.
Kim has clearly looked at the economic success racked up by neighbours such as China and South Korea and decided it is North Korea’s turn to enjoy a period of robust growth.
“The major shift within North Korea was Kim’s announcement in April that the country’s focus needed to shift entirely to economic development,” said John Delury, an associate professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.
“Kim’s ambitions for North Korea to catch up to the prosperity of its neighbours is the key underlying driver of progress in the diplomacy around ‘peace and denuclearisation.’ The challenge for 2019, then, is for Seoul (which has the lead in peace) and Washington (which has the lead on denuclearisation) to align their efforts in practical and proactive ways with Kim’s willingness to keep moving in a positive direction,” he said.
During the year, Kim travelled to China three times in less than three months. While the nuclear issue was undoubtedly on the agenda, he was also looking for insights into economic reform and took the time to visit the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and a unit of the Beijing Infrastructure Investment Company.
Something similar happened when North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong-ho met Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Xhan Phuc this month during a four-day visit.
This was believed to be a mission to learn about doi moi, the programme of economic reforms begun in 1986. The reforms are similar to those seen in China – political power stays with the Communist Party but the government steps back on economic matters.
The view in China is that the US must now step up if a solution is to be found.
“For me, North Korea, and I think even for China, North Korea is softening. But America won’t even agree to have a dialogue with Kim Jong-un to discuss formally ending the war between US and North Korea. The problem lies with the US that there is no progress after Singapore,” said Shi Yinhong, who is director of the Centre for American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing.
“It depends on what Trump does. If the US is willing to make some actual compromises regarding formally ending the war and on sanctions, then North Korea will make even more progress in terms of denuclearisation . . . the US role is decisive.”
A subtle but telling shift that North Korea might be moving away from hardline Stalinism to something closer to the Chinese model came when reports emerged that Ri Chun-hee, the KCTV news anchor known as the “Pink Lady” for her pink traditional hanbok dress, was being moved aside to make way for younger, more contemporary newsreaders.
But it will take more than cosmetic evidence of reform to convince the US and others that the North is softening its approach.
Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre in Beijing, believes that right now, the US finds itself in a worse position now than a year ago.
“Yes, there is greater regional stability thanks to a halt in North Korea missile and nuclear tests. But, it was only year ago that North Korea was internationally isolated. Its relations with its strongest ally, China, were strained,” he said.
“The global community was aligned in the need to implement rigorous economic sanctions and pressure to halt further North Korean nuclear development . . . Today, international consensus on the need for a continuation of the maximum pressure campaign is waning, even among US allies like South Korea,” said Haenle.
If the current situation is to change, Kim needs to make concessions on full denuclearisation, such as giving a full inventory of nuclear weapons sites and agreeing to verification.
“More worrisome, if nothing is accomplished, we may find ourselves back where we were one year ago, with threats of a ‘bloody nose’ and missiles being launched of the North Korean coast,” said Haenle.