What Will Kim Become?
The Singapore Summit pairing U.S. President Donald Trump with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is history, the hot takes have had time to cool, and it’s possible now to take a deeper look at what happened. The summit communique is vague, just a promise. Most important is what we’ve learned about Kim as a person, a leader, and a negotiator.
Kim Jong Un is a still a young and in many ways unformed man. In Singapore, he found himself out in the wider world, exposed to the international public’s eye for the first time as his nation’s leader. After years as his father’s successor-in-waiting and then as the country’s leader after 2011, Kim’s has been a life steeped in the make-believe North Korean totalitarianism created by his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and then tended by his father, Kim Jong Il.
Is Kim’s personal mindset already fixed? Or is he, as I believe, still learning and open to influence, with some ambitions unrealized and others hardly yet perceived? Who will he become?
Three models are plausible. First, Jong Un could become his father, Kim Jong Il, a typical totalitarian leader of the Stalinist/Maoist type. Such a leader governs with a paranoid style, a genial exterior hiding a vicious interior. He is an undependable negotiating partner, and a man with ruthless disregard for the lives of his people, including those of his own family. Kim Jong Il in his first few years in office in the 1990s presided over a massive famine. Up to 10 percent of North Koreans died of starvation – perhaps two million people. Kim Jong Un’s first years in office were marked by brutality. Vicious executions ended the lives of his uncle and dozens of others. Kim maintained the Communist gulag of political prisoners and hard labor camps and fostered the totalitarian worship of the Great Leader -- he was anointed ideologically as the “Great Successor.”
A second possibility is that Kim could take on the mantle of a North Korean Deng Xiaoping. Deng was a first-generation revolutionary high official, one of Mao Zedong’s henchmen. Unexpectedly, upon becoming “Paramount Leader” of China in 1979 following Chairman Mao’s death in 1976, Deng inaugurated a season of deep reforms in China. Deng led the creation of a rational economic system, loosened the totalitarian straight-jacket, and opened China to the world. Today’s China, the economic powerhouse directed under the authoritarianism of Xi Jinping, is Deng’s legacy.
The third option is the wild card: Kim could become a North Korean version of Mikhail Gorbachev. That is, Kim might try to enact reformist ideas that he is ultimately unable to control. Gorbachev thought he was supremely practical, cosmopolitan, and oriented toward liberalism, but in fact he was in way over his head. If Kim chooses this road, chaos could follow, and a collapse of the state is not unthinkable.
Kim put on a convincing performance -- but barely hidden were signs of youthful awkwardness and political inexperience in dealing with foreigners, as well as an inevitable provincialism of demeanor. (How could it have been otherwise?)
Kim had been portrayed in our media as an immense leader, impeccably briefed, ready to play Trump the way his father had played previous American presidents. He was playing a weak hand, however. This was clear in the way he was treated by Trump and a few weeks earlier by South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Several key episodes showed that the Americans and South Koreans consider Kim to be impressionable and susceptible to influence. As expected, Kim wanted respect, for himself and his country; he wanted to be treated as an equal despite being smaller by far in person and in country than Trump and the United States. Kim needs to impress the Americans, but also his own people back home. The photos Pyongyang showed of the two men were chosen to convey the impression of two leaders standing on even ground.
A small but telling anecdote is Trump showing Kim “the Beast,” the presidential limousine. It was like a glimpse inside supreme leadership heaven: luxurious armored security, the highest-tech gadgets, the smoothest ride. The American media reported the episode, but few made much of it. Kim gave no sign that he felt disrespected.
A more telling signal of how Kim was perceived was the four-minute video that had been made to exhort him to do the right thing.
The trailer depicts a brave new future for North Korea and world peace, if “one leader, one man” has the courage and insight to make the right choice -- typical Hollywood. The video was produced, according to reports, by the U.S. National Security Council. Media commentary was predictably snide and dismissive. The New Yorker magazine termed this gambit “sensational idiocy.”
No analysis that I have seen mentioned the obvious -- that the trailer was not random stupidity, but psychological diplomacy based on some considered estimate by our government of Kim’s mentality and the measure of his susceptibilities. The video may prove ineffective, but the possibility that it might be astute has not been considered in the American press.
In a similar vein, at their inter-Korean meeting in April, Moon handed Kim a USB drive with an e-book that laid out a “new economic map for the Korean Peninsula,’’ including power plants for electricity; plans for modern railway and highway networks linking the two Koreas, and the North with China; avenues for foreign investment; and jobs and aid for North Korea’s impoverished population.
Kim has signaled that he wants to raise living standards. In a nationally broadcast speech last year, Kim made a startling admission of his failure to get economic development going alongside the country’s nuclear program. “My desires were burning all the time,” he said, “but I spent the past year feeling anxious and remorseful for the lack of my ability.” Now he wants a country where the people would “no longer have to tighten their belts.”
The standard Western response is to never trust a North Korean leader: They’ve lied every time before. But others, including South Korean leaders who know Kim better than us, are saying they think he is serious. After meeting with him, Moon called Kim “open-minded and practical.” Kim apparently made a joke at dinner that, if Moon were to visit Pyongyang he should fly, because North Korean roads and train track are so bad, “it would be embarrassing.”
Let’s at least imagine the possibility that Kim himself is not the major obstacle to historic changes in North Korea, but instead is the likeliest protagonist, the change-maker. The South Korean flash drive may be the first time Kim has been presented with actual plans for economic reform. In other words, Kim may have no economic advisors who would dare discuss such matters with him or have the expertise to do so.
There haven’t been any reports that Kim reacted with hostility to the South Korean plan, that he felt he was being patronized.
What about Pyongyang’s relations with Beijing? It’s significant that he has traveled there three times since Trump’s diplomatic turn, most recently after his meeting with Trump. What’s at issue here?
One hypothesis is that Kim needs Chinese support for serious reform, and that this means Beijing has powerful influence on him. This is no doubt true. But Beijing is not sure to control North Korea’s development, contrary to the conventional wisdom.
Why would Kim want China to dominate North Korea’s economic and political development? South Korea is Kim’s natural first partner by ethnicity and history. Korean unification, whatever it will mean, is Pyongyang’s goal, not some alliance with Beijing against everyone else. Kim must accommodate China’s interests, but he also must want political independence from Beijing. Koreans distrust China -- not as much as they hate Japan, but enough to affect their strategic calculations.
It’s a moment of existential choice. Kim, if he wants to become the great liberator of his people, will never have a more advantageous moment to do so. He’s dealing with American and South Korean leaders who understand his predicament. In fact, Kim might calculate that Washington and Seoul are his best allies in facing off Chinese hegemony and the hostile reactions he is bound to find at home among elites who may fear for their privileges.
If Jong Un sees this now, negotiating denuclearization in exchange for security guarantees and aid is plausible. Remember that Kim’s nuclear arsenal doesn’t exist for its own sake.
Diplomacy in the next few months could produce an inter-Korean agreement as well as a multilateral peace treaty that would officially end the Korean War. A further step could be a new multilateral treaty of friendship and mutual security among Washington, Pyongyang, Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo. The first step needs to be immediate: Kim must verifiably destroy his ballistic missile capacity to eliminate North Korea’s threat to the U.S. mainland.
Kim should also announce an immediate reduction of North Korea’s huge conventional artillery deployment near the demilitarized zone -- an asset that has Seoul, where thousands of Americans live, within its range.
Kim can and must move quickly to succeed. He can drive hard bargains but must not be playing tricks. In fact, he has every interest to make Trump look good. If I’m right about Kim Jong Un’s outlook, it could be a win-win.