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What if Kim Jong-un is Looking to Liberalize?

On April 27, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in will meet, ahead of a trilateral summit with President Trump in June. There is a lot to talk about, but the focus in the West on nuclear issues misses the real story: Kim may be seeking revolutionary economic upheaval. There are signs everything is about to change.

It isn’t hard to imagine Kim with a biography of former Chinese leader Deng Xiao-ping on his nightstand. Deng’s rise to power saw China’s centrally managed economy failing to feed its people, isolated from the world, and dependent on the Soviet Union. Then everything changed in 1979 when Deng secured an agreement with President Jimmy Carter that covered his security needs (no one seemed worried China had nukes), diplomatically papered over long-simmering political issues like the status of Taiwan, and allowed him to introduce changes that led directly to China’s economic ascendance.

A key sign Kim is headed the same way is the extraordinary number of concessions he has made ahead of his upcoming summits. Kim is acting like a man in a hurry.

Among those changes, Kim agreed to seek a formal end to the 1950 Korean War—supported by some 80 percent [1] of South Koreans, such an accord would be a massive domestic win for Moon, himself the son of North Korean refugees, ahead of the June 13 elections. Following a visit to Beijing that signified a sign-off from North Chinese patrons (confirmed soon after when Kim received Song Tao, a key Chinese diplomat, in Pyongyang), Kim Jong-un announced denuclearization of the peninsula negotiable, while at the same time saying he’ll no longer insist the U.S. remove its troops in the South as a precondition to discussions.

change_me

Trump could never agree to troop reductions at this early stage, and could never move into a summit if denuclearization was non-negotiable. Kim has now taken those problems off the table. Kim then announced a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, and closed down the Punggye-ri test site. The rain of missiles that in the fall prompted Trump to issue his “fire and fury” threat simply…stopped.

Kim also announced [2] the end of his signature domestic policy, byungjin, the parallel advance of defense and the domestic economy (Kim’s father promoted the defense-only policy of songun). At a recent Workers’ Party meeting, he said it was time to focus the nation’s resources on rebuilding its economy, a clear signal to domestic elites that he is aware of their desire for a better life. Throw in for good measure the reopening of the intra-Korea hotline, CIA director Mike Pompeo’s welcome in Pyongyang, the recent recognition of capitalism in North Korean law [3], and the stream of cultural exchanges underway that include K-Pop shows attended by Kim himself.

These concessions and changes are exactly what would have been expected to be the focus of the summits, if not the hoped-for results of months of tedious negotiations to follow. But what if Kim wants more?

Wipe clean for a moment the cartoon image of Kim as a madman [4] and re-imagine him as a nationalist. Kim grew up surrounded by Westerners at a boarding school in Switzerland. He speaks [5] French, German, and some English. He knows where North Korea sits in the world. What if Kim sees himself as his nation’s Deng Xiao-ping? What if, having a crude nuclear deterrent and knowing pushing it further can only hasten his destruction [6], he is ready to end his nation’s isolation? What if by sweeping many of the expected short-term American goals off the table with unilateral concessions Kim wants to move directly to talking money, not just weapons? What if Kim is actually following Deng’s example?

One of Deng’s first changes allowed farmers to sell surplus produce. Factories were told to sell production over-quota on the open market. Special economic zones designed to make money (not political showpieces such as the North-South experiment at Gaeseong) were set up, with much of the early action focused on “safe” partners like Hong Kong.

So it may matter a lot that Seoul is already exploring ways to sell electricity [7] to the North, and that Kim supports [2] special economic zones. Or that there are already some 480 sanctioned (not “black”) free markets in North Korea, many new since Kim took power, hundreds [8] more renovated or expanded under his hand. North Korea’s state-controlled media regularly runs pictures of Kim visiting these markets. There is a restless and growing consumerist [9] middle class [10] in North Korea, living in a parallel semi-market economy fueled by dollars, Chinese currency, and increasing access to foreign [11] media, all not unknown to the Kim regime.

“Everything about North Korea spells potential,” says [12] one North Korean defector now at the South Korea Development Bank. Estimated to be worth $6 trillion dollars, North Korea’s reserves of gold, copper, zinc, and other minerals would allow Kim to diversify his sources of income if he converts his country into what Bloomberg [12] calls a “frontier market” in the center of a booming region.

Unlike previous negotiations with North Korea, when Kim’s father had to be bribed by the Clinton administration with a nuclear reactor [13] to even come to the table, the current process is driven by the Koreas—witness the low-key role America played at the diplomatic dance at the Olympics. As one analyst put [14] it “It is no longer where the U.S. may take the negotiating process so much as where the negotiating process may take the U.S…. Those in the region now seem determined to commandeer a train the Americans have driven for 65 years.”

To succeed, Trump need do little more than not fall prey to establishment fears, be unafraid to enable the economic opportunities he claims to understand well, and stay out of the way as the two Koreas with their shared cultural, linguistic, and historical ties frame [15] the issues. In this sense, the Kim-Moon summit may be more important than the Kim-Moon-Trump one. However, if Trump bulls into the room and says “Nukes, number one and we’re done,” the process will stall.

Political opponents will claim: “They’ll renege, just you wait.” They will make the most of the “we beat the other guy” statements Kim (and Trump) will make for their domestic audiences. Media are teeing up denuclearization as a straw man, claiming that if Trump comes home and the North still retains its weapons, he has failed. Such remarks are ahistorical nonsense: denuclearization is a process, not an event. The Obama-era Iran accords required two years of negotiations and didn’t even involve actual weapons. U.S.-Soviet Cold War progress was measured in baby steps strung out over decades. Fast-track denuclearization has its history, too, in the failures in Libya and Iraq.

Success will be measured as North Korea engages the international system, thus reducing the threat of war as a base for reducing the weapons. After all, decades of sanctions have yielded only a nuclear North Korea, and summit or no summit that is a starting point, not a debatable point. It is possible to imagine a future where North Korea’s nuclear stockpile erodes into the status of those in Pakistan and India, never mind China: an understood deterrent, not a threat. Focusing too much on the nukes is to ensure failure; they are part of a problem solved by a comprehensive solution that takes into account what the North is really at the table for: engagement with the world system.

Reviewing the last 10 years of Western political thought on North Korea, it is staggering how poorly predictions have panned out. There has been no succession struggle, no societal collapse, no coup, no war—and no progress. It is as if having painted one picture, the West is intellectually blocked from considering another. That is the most dangerous thing afoot as the 2018 summits loom.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well [16]: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War [17]: A Novel of WWII Japan. Follow him on Twitter @WeMeantWell [18].

30 Comments (Open | Close)

30 Comments To "What if Kim Jong-un is Looking to Liberalize?"

#1 Comment By Richard W. Bray On April 26, 2018 @ 12:17 am

My theory is that North and South Korea have already secretly reached an accord and they approached Trump saying, “We’re doing this with or without you.”

That way Trump, who’s a notoriously lousy negotiator in real life, can show up, pretend to negotiate a brilliant deal with Kim, and then head back to the golf course.

This will improve the stature of both men immeasurably, a real win-win proposition.

#2 Comment By Realist On April 26, 2018 @ 3:35 am

The North Koreans are at least as intelligent as the South Koreans.

#3 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 26, 2018 @ 9:11 am

In spite of the fact that western “media are teeing up denuclearization as a straw man, claiming that if Trump comes home and the North still retains its weapons, he has failed” – “to succeed, Trump need do little more than not fall prey to establishment fears, be unafraid to enable the economic opportunities he claims to understand well, and stay out of the way as the two Koreas with their shared cultural, linguistic, and historical ties frame the issues.”

As succinct and brilliant an analysis of upcoming negotiations as I’ve seen. Thank you, Peter Van Buren.

#4 Comment By Michelle On April 26, 2018 @ 10:46 am

This scenario makes a lot of sense and explains much of Kim’s recent behavior. I hope Trump (for once) has sense enough to stay out of his own way and let things fall into place. His appointment of Bolton doesn’t make me optimistic.

#5 Comment By Michael Kenny On April 26, 2018 @ 10:59 am

It would be nice if this turned out to be true. It certainly seesm to be what the Chinese want.

#6 Comment By Peter Van Buren On April 26, 2018 @ 11:24 am

“His appointment of Bolton doesn’t make me optimistic.”

Bolton knows his place, and will not interfere in North Korean diplomacy, Trump wants this too badly. Worry more about Bolton vis-vis Iran, where Trump seems less interested in a deal.

#7 Comment By b. On April 26, 2018 @ 11:41 am

Interesting, and mostly convincing. I mentioned

[15]

in another thread. Some of the “concessions” are overstated or ambiguous – the hotline, and the moratorium on testing – but others are certainly realistic at the least (such as not insisting on US troop withdrawal as a precondition). The understated key point is that Kim does not need a deal with Trump, he needs a deal with Moon.

Van Buren depicts Kim as a leader driven by necessities – ultimately implying “regime change” from within. I think this sets aside the shared Korean history in an imposed division and a brutal war that served US and Chinese imagined and real interests at incredible suffering in both Koreas.

Kim might well understand that the US will never give up its bases – and the erosion of South Korean sovereignty that results from it – and that a bounty of natural resources just means a push for “markets freed” at gunpoint. North Korea’s “consumerist” – certainly a neolibcon ideal – population will be ill-served if the nation is forced to submit to the “Resource Curse” that the West imposes on Africa and the Middle East, and is driving hard to impose on Russia once more.

Under a competent US President acting in bad faith, the status quo would not change. Given that Trump is ill-equipped to be another Nixon (or even just a Carter), nor a Reagan (meeting in Kim his own Gorbachev, which is unlikely), any departure from the “cease fire” status quo is more likely to substitute China as a guarantor for a Korean “separate but equal” path to co-existence over the objections of the US, than a US mediated reunification “by default” as the Soviet Union permitted in Germany.

If the US had a sensible concept of national interests, with deconfliction as a priority, and if the US would honor its commitments to its ally and prioritize South Korea’s interests for that reason, then van Buren describes a great opportunity to improve the lives of many people on the peninsula. However, given the priorities and ambitions of the biparty war profiteering classes, the best we can hope for is US ineptitude leading to advances despite our elite’s best efforts.

#8 Comment By Wilfred On April 26, 2018 @ 11:53 am

Reports that Kim’s nuclear test mountain has been damaged beyond all repair may have changed his tune.

We often think our enemies have some grand plan they are meticulously putting into play. Maybe they are just winging it. They are just as prone to hubris, emotion, and miscalculation as we are.

#9 Comment By Michelle On April 26, 2018 @ 1:28 pm

Bolton knows his place, and will not interfere in North Korean diplomacy, Trump wants this too badly. Worry more about Bolton vis-vis Iran, where Trump seems less interested in a deal.

I have no faith that Trump actually knows what he wants in terms of foreign policy, save for ample opportunities for self-aggrandizement. His ignorance is as vast as his bellicosity.

#10 Comment By Peter Van Buren On April 26, 2018 @ 2:27 pm

Michelle writes “His ignorance is as vast as his bellicosity.”

I get that mocking Trump has become sport, yet in 70yrs no US president has been on this close to a break through. And despite what you read, Trump has an able State Dept and IC around him. He doesn’t need to do much in Korea, just, as I wrote, stay out of the way while Kim and Moon do the heavy lifting. Why not give peace a chance this time?

#11 Comment By Dr TJ Martin On April 26, 2018 @ 5:01 pm

Trump has an able State department ? Is that a fact .Reality is the State department has been stripped to the bone lacking diplomats across the globe including S . Korea , those remaining are depressed at best .. and what few positions have been filled have been taken over by utter incompetents

No one has ever been this close ? You might want to re-read your history before expressing such bold face erroneous opinions .

Bolton knows his place ? Yes … making sure he becomes and remains one of Trump’s quisling sycophant yes men

Why not give peace a chance ? That’d be nice but reality says it’ll never happen . Fact is I’d lay odds Kim Jong uhl and the Chinese are playing Trump like a cheap violin … to what end God only knows

#12 Comment By EarlyBird On April 26, 2018 @ 5:26 pm

Excellent analysis. I do also believe this is the start of something real in North Korea, a real breakthrough. It’s going to be about economics. I don’t expect Kim to just do another bait and switch where he gets bakshish from the US and then continues on his merry way.

#13 Comment By Peter Van Buren On April 27, 2018 @ 8:05 am

Dr TJ Martin writes “Reality is the State department has been stripped to the bone lacking diplomats across the globe including S Korea”

After serving 24 years in the State Dept, including four in Seoul, I’ll suggest what I hear from former colleagues is a tad more accurate than what you read from “sources.” Try reading this if you want insight over propaganda: [19]

#14 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 27, 2018 @ 9:15 am

Peter Van Buren says: “in 70 yrs no US president has been on this close to a break through.”

T.J. Martin objects: “No one has ever been this close? You might want to re-read your history before expressing such bold face erroneous opinions.”

To T.J. Martin: In fairness, could you please give us even one example of when you think a US president was this close to a breakthrough? It’s OK to accuse Peter Van Buren of expressing “bold face erroneous opinions,” but please do the accusing AFTER you have cited an example of when you think a US president who was this close to a breakthrough.

#15 Comment By Youknowho On April 27, 2018 @ 9:30 am

I guess that it is time that the US learns the following mantra “It is not about you”

The two Koreas are talking. It is their show. It is their interests and their needs. The US is basically a bystander who insist on protagonism.

That “manifest destiny” and “exceptional” crap has to go if we are going to have a realistic foreign policy.

#16 Comment By El Bearsidente On April 27, 2018 @ 9:45 am

Maybe.

But what if not?

We’ve seen this before. Munich, 1938. Career professionals, extremely well educated men, like Daladier and Chamberlain, were played like a fiddle by a dictator who never even went to university (he didn’t pass entrance examination twice.)

Chamberlain went home and said “peace for our time” and a year later the world was at war.

North Korea isn’t far off from Nazi Germany. The ideologies are strikingly similar.

So forgive me, but I’m holding off any celebrations until there’s something worth celebrating.

#17 Comment By JM On April 27, 2018 @ 2:29 pm

As far as the liberalization theory, I’m skeptical. Can you name any authoritarian leader who sustains a personality cult who has liberalized to the degree you’re talking about? Liberalization only happened after Stalin, Ceaușescu, Franco etc all died or were removed from power.

#18 Comment By Clifford Story On April 27, 2018 @ 2:51 pm

Everything has happened too quickly for me to believe there’s been a true change in North Korean policy. It’s a stage-show, carried on to score propaganda points. My theory is that Kim feels able to offer anything he likes, because he knows Donnie will blow the whole thing up. The more Kim offers before that happens, the better he’ll look.

How will Donnie blow it up? Well, there’s more than one nuclear power in Korea. Will Donnie agree to the North Koreans inspecting U.S. bases and warships in and around Korea? I doubt it. And if he breaks the deal with Iran, Kim can throw up his hands and ask, “How can anyone trust these people?”

#19 Comment By Cornel Lencar On April 27, 2018 @ 2:57 pm

In my opinion the talking is happening because NK has secured nuclear weapons and credible means of delivery at distance. This is crucial and one can see in the hysteria ensuing after Russia said is reconsidering delivering S-300 defense systems to Syria (which is only defensive, not allowing enemy to crap on you) or the insistence that Iran renounce its ballistic program.

Before all these, US wouldn’t talk with NK. Now they have to, and it has nothing to do with Trump, as Mr. van Buren seems to imply. It is a situation created by NK. And SK wouldn’t want to be caught in the crossfire. That is another variable in the equation.

The main issue that will be, and around which discussions will happen, is the medium to long term presence of US military bases in SK. I am sure that both China and Russia have learned from the past – the fall of Soviet Union and the US promises to not advance east with NATO integration.

Will see how all these will play out.

#20 Comment By Doug Megenity On April 27, 2018 @ 3:37 pm

Reading through these comments it strikes me that the myopic view Mr Van Buren cautions against when discussing the lack of analytic creativity in North Korea analysis is in full swing with some readers’ views of the Trump Administrations depth of involvement in these ongoing negotiations.

Its quite clear to me that the administration not only has been involved in all aspects of this detente, but was a guiding hand behind the wheel from the very beginning.

It takes a willful rejection of the potential competency of the Trump administration to not even consider its possible merits.

#21 Comment By Gern On April 28, 2018 @ 2:40 am

A divided Korea is a big cash cow for the MIC in the U.S. I would expect a big pushback from peace by their whores in congress, but I’m hoping for the best, since I live in Asia.

Good luck to a unified peaceful Korea!

#22 Comment By teri On April 28, 2018 @ 8:55 am

Trump deserves no credit at all for this recent event. He was even trying to sabotage the event via Twitter as it took place, for heaven’s sake.

All credit must go to Moon Jae-in and his staff. Peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula, assuming this works out, will happen despite the US, not because of it.

I just hope Trump and the war-hawks he has added to his list of advisors and cabinet can stay the heck out of the way.

#23 Comment By Kratoklastes On April 28, 2018 @ 11:59 pm

played like a fiddle by a dictator

Please – enlighten us as to what you know about the discussions between Germany and Britain regarding the Danzig Corridor. Pay specific attention to the ‘shuttle diplomacy’ undertaken by von Ribbentrop and Henderson in the last week of August 1939, and the proposed status of the Corridor under the terms laid out in the document of August 29. (And why was it the business of either England or France? ‘they had a pact with Poland’ does not make it their business)

Seriously: your worldview might consist of a series of cartoons punctuated by a black and white newsreel of a man with a funny moustahce shouting in a language you don’t understand – but that’s not a sensible basis for cross-sectional analysis of world affairs.

(Bonus points if you can answer this question: if the shouty man with the funny moustache was imposing on the residents of the places he invaded, how was he able to travel in open-topped vehicles everywhere he went? Why did he fail to press the advantage at Dunkirk? Why was he so keen that Paris not be bombarded?)

#24 Comment By Egypt Steve On April 29, 2018 @ 12:45 am

“I get that mocking Trump has become sport, yet in 70yrs no US president has been on this close to a break through.”

What breakthrough? If we had been willing to publicly accept a NK with nuclear weapons, we could have had all of this at any time. Call it what you want, but apparently, Trump is preparing to surrender.

#25 Comment By Peter Van Buren On April 29, 2018 @ 3:58 pm

Egypt Steve says: “If we had been willing to publicly accept a NK with nuclear weapons, we could have had all of this at any time. Call it what you want, but apparently, Trump is preparing to surrender.”

Hate to tell you bro, but whether the US “accepts” it or not, North Korea is a nuclear power. Has been since the Bush administration. The goal is to reduce the chance of war, which is what Trump and Moon are doing. It’s not called “surrender,” it’s called diplomacy, that thing so many people complain Trump doesn’t do enough of.

#26 Comment By Egypt Steve On April 29, 2018 @ 6:50 pm

re: if the shouty man with the funny moustache was imposing on the residents of the places he invaded, how was he able to travel in open-topped vehicles everywhere he went?

Were ordinary people able to get close enough to him to take a shot? Was there a reasonable fear of dreadful reprisals in case an attempt was made? As JFK learned, it only takes one person who is obsessed with you to take you out. Certainly there was always one person around who really, really hated him. Being loved by 99.999 percent of the populations he had conquered wouldn’t protect him from that one person unless he had security, terror or sheer luck going for him.

re: Why did he fail to press the advantage at Dunkirk?

The shouty man made lots of tactical and strategic mistakes. Why did he invade the USSR? Why did he declare war on the USA? Why didn’t he permit Rommel to defend Normandy properly?

Re: Why was he so keen that Paris not be bombarded?

Like lots of other fascists and gangsters, he also had his sentimental side. He liked dogs and children, as well as great architecture, and never stopped seeing himself as a misunderstood arteest.

#27 Comment By Nam Pyo Lee On April 30, 2018 @ 12:35 am

The cardinal principle of the issue/talk is
CVID. Why the talk roaming away from the principled substance?
Hope our Trump stays alert, sticking with the
lessons the smart Americans learned from the history: “No hazy talk with a dictator in a serious session.”

#28 Comment By Egypt Steve On April 30, 2018 @ 12:09 pm

@ Nam Pyo Lee:

For the love of Mike, our Trump’s middle name is “Mr. Hazy Talk.”

#29 Comment By Thomas Hobbes On May 1, 2018 @ 3:49 am

John Mearsheimer argues that nukes are purely defensive weapons. Any nuclear attack by Kim on the US or a neighboring country would lead to his instant annihilation. What nukes do is deter aggressors such as the US who are bent on “regime change.” The US has no reason to want to remove NK’s nukes other than because they are an obstacle to regime change, though there is a possibility that NK could help Iran develop insurance against regime change initiated by Israel or its US lobby. But regime change is illegal aggression and should not be our object. The US has no concerns regarding the well-being of SK or Japan; this diversion is wholly for Israel’s benefit. Drop the demand for unilateral disarmament and SINCERE negotiations about trade and human rights can take place.

#30 Comment By Donald Berrian On May 2, 2018 @ 9:48 pm

Kim will do whatever his Chinese masters order him to do. He and his country can’t exist without his support. China probably thought threatening the US with nuclear weapons through North Korea was a good idea and would advance their agenda in the Western Pacific. The US military was not fooled and the President is willing to push back against China so they need to back down. Allowing North Korea to claim to have submarine launched missiles was particularly dumb. No one can tell who launched such a missile so the retaliation would have to be general.