SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – Too young. Too weak. Too inexperienced.
Since coming to power following the sudden death of his father 10 years ago, Kim Jong Un has cleared the popular doubts that greeted his early efforts to prolong the grip of his waning dynasty. family violence against North Korea.
Initial predictions of a regency, collective leadership or a military coup were tempered by an estimated hundreds of executions and purges targeting family members and guardians. old guard. That ruthless consolidation of power, coupled with a larger-than-life personality seemingly crafted for carefully packaged television propaganda, has allowed Kim to make it clear that his power is absolute.
But as North Korea’s first millennium dictator marks a decade in power this Friday, he may be facing his most difficult moment yet, as sanctions weigh on him. collapses, pandemics and growing economic troubles converge. If Kim can’t maintain his commitment to developing both nuclear weapons and his bountiful economy, which many experts consider impossible, that could spell trouble for his long-term rule. .
The modest economic growth he achieved in a few years through trade and market-oriented reforms, after tightening international sanctions since 2016, when Kim accelerated his pursuit of nuclear weapons. nuclear weapons and missiles aimed at the United States and its Asian allies.
After making global headlines at summits with former US President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019, Mr. Kim is now stuck at home, grappling with a deteriorating economy that has taken a turn for the worse. than by pandemic-related border closures.
Negotiations with Washington have been deadlocked for more than two years after he failed to win and desperately need sanctions relief from Trump. The administration of President Joe Biden is unlikely to be in a hurry to cut a deal unless Kim demonstrates a willingness to curtail his nuclear weapons program, a “treasure sword” he sees as a major guarantee. best for his survival.
While still firmly in control, Kim seems increasingly unlikely to achieve his stated goals of simultaneously keeping nuclear weapons and bringing prosperity to his impoverished people. Kim set this goal in his first public address as leader in early 2012, vowing that North Korea would “never have to tighten its belts again”.
Park Won Gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said how Kim handles the economy in the coming years could determine the long-term stability of his rule and possibly is the future of his family dynasty.
“The nuclear weapons program, the economy, and the regime’s stability are all interlinked. If the nuclear problem is not resolved, the economy will not get better, and that could open up. raises the possibility of instability and confusion in North Korean society,” said Park.
Kim desperately needs the lifting of US-led sanctions to build his economy, which has also been damaged by decades of mismanagement and heavy military spending.
But meaningful U.S. relief may not come unless Kim takes concrete steps toward denuclearization. Despite pursuing the summit, Trump has shown no interest in budging in the face of sanctions, which he has described as Washington’s main leverage over Pyongyang, and it’s unclear if Kim will ever see it. whether another US president is as willing to engage with North Korea as Trump.
Their diplomacy fell apart after their second summit in February 2019, when the Americans refused North Korea’s demand for major sanctions relief in exchange for the removal of a nuclear facility. old nuclear force, which would have forced the country’s nuclear capabilities to be partially abandoned.
The two sides have not met publicly since a failed follow-up meeting between working-level officials in October of that year. Two months later, Kim announced at a domestic political conference that he would further expand his nuclear arsenal in the face of “gangster-like” pressure from the United States, calling on his people to stand firm in the struggle. economic self-sufficiency.
However, the global COVID-19 crisis has thwarted some of Kim’s major economic goals by forcing the country into a self-imposed siege, crippling trade with China, its main ally, and crippling trade. their sole economic lifeline.
South Korea’s spy agency recently told lawmakers that North Korea’s annual trade with China had dropped by two-thirds to $185 million as of September 2021. North Korean officials are also worried. worry about food shortages, rising commodity prices, and shortages of medicine and other essential supplies. According to the agency’s legislators, has accelerated the spread of water-borne diseases such as typhoid fever.
Negotiations with the United States are in limbo. The Biden administration, whose withdrawal from Afghanistan highlights a broader shift in US focus from fighting terrorism and so-called rogue states like North Korea and Iran to confronting China, has not offered much more than open-ended negotiations.
North Korea has so far denied appropriation, saying Washington must first abandon its “hostile policy”, a term Pyongyang mainly uses to refer to sanctions and military exercises. America-Korea.
“North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons, no matter what,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. “The only topic they are willing to talk about is not the dream of denuclearization but the issues related to arms control.”
However, Kim could benefit from the confrontation between Washington and Beijing, which increases North Korea’s strategic value to China, Lankov said. China is willing to keep North Korea afloat by expanding food, fuel and other aid, and that eases pressure on Kim to negotiate with the United States.
“Instead of growth, North Korea will stagnate, but not an acute crisis,” Lankov said. “For Kim Jong Un and his elite, it’s an acceptable compromise.”
North Korea has been taking active steps to reassert state control over the economy amid the closure of its borders due to the pandemic. This undoes Kim’s earlier reforms, which included private investment and allowed more autonomy as well as market incentives for state-owned enterprises and factories to facilitate trade. domestic production and trade.
There are also signs that North Korean officials are blocking the use of US dollars and other foreign currencies in the market, a clear reflection of worries about depleting foreign currency reserves.
Restoring central control over the economy could also be crucial to mobilizing state resources so that Kim can further expand his nuclear program, which if not going to be a challenge as the economy deteriorates.
While Kim has suspended testing of nuclear devices and long-range missiles for three years, he has ramped up testing of shorter-range weapons that threaten US allies South Korea and Japan.
Go Myong-hyun, a senior analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said: “Nukes brought Kim into this mess, but he is maintaining a contradictory policy of promoting the the nucleus comes out of it”.
“The US-led sanctions regime will remain and a return to a state-controlled economy has never been the answer for North Korea before and now will not be the answer. At some point, Kim will face a difficult choice as to how. He will keep his nuclear weapons in the long run and that could happen relatively soon,” Go added.