What made Pyongyang change?The first face-to-face interaction between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is only nine days away, in what will be an early test of Kim’s willingness to give up his nuclear arsenal. The 34-year-old leader who rose to power in December 2011 following his father’s death has promised to discuss some form of denuclearization, but exactly how far the talks will go is anyone’s guess.
In a four-part series, the JoongAng Ilbo analyzes Kim’s major change of course this year, the struggles of the country’s economy that could have triggered that change, and Kim’s powerful inner-circle.
The first sign that 2018 would be different from 2017, when Kim Jong-un conducted 17 missile tests and a nuclear experiment, was on Jan. 1 during his New Year’s speech. “We should improve the frozen inter-Korean relations,” Kim said in the televised address, “and glorify this meaningful year as an eventful one, noteworthy in the history of the nation.”
The Choson Sinbo, a newspaper run by North Koreans in Japan, which is widely deemed Pyongyang’s unofficial mouthpiece, reported on March 26 that Kim made his decision to change course in early December as he climbed Mount Paektu, the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula and a significant element of the Kim family mythology, allegedly being the birthplace of former leader Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father. It is also considered the place from which the Korean race derives, according to Korean mythology.
When North Korean media reports that Kim Jong-un ascended the mountain, North Korea watchers know something major is happening. Two weeks before Jang Song-thaek, Kim’s uncle and political mentor, was executed on Dec. 12, 2013, for “anti-party, counter-revolutionary acts in a bid to overthrow the leadership,” the North’s media featured Kim visiting Mount Paektu.
On Nov. 29, the North tested its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile and announced later the same day that it officially “mastered nuclear force,” which analysts believe was the point at which Kim determined to use his nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip to lift sanctions and be recognized internationally.
The North initially reached out to South Korea when Kim said in his New Year’s address that his country was willing to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Games and hold talks with Seoul to realize that. Subsequently, through five special envoys sent by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang in early March to meet Kim, the North said it was willing to talk to the United States as well.
After U.S. President Donald Trump accepted Kim’s proposal to hold the first-ever summit between the two countries, Kim headed to Beijing in late March to hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first known time he met the head of a foreign government.
It was also a rapprochement with Xi, the leader of North Korea’s most important ally and economic lifeline, who disapproved of Kim’s nuclear tests. Kim sent Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho to Moscow last week to discuss Korean peninsular issues with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. North Korea’s outreach to its traditional allies was perceived as an effort to build its negotiating power with the United States for when Kim meets Trump in May or early June.
Pyongyang’s nuclear drive began in the late 1960s, when Kim Il Sung was inspired by Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong, who is said to have told the North Korean founder that the world wouldn’t dare bully his regime if he had oil and atomic warheads. (But Mao thought North Korea too small a country to need nuclear weapons.)
Scholars believe that the North may be emulating China, which by the end of the ’60s, completed its development of ballistic missiles as well as atomic and hydrogen bombs, established diplomatic relations with the United States in 1972 and pushed through market reform.
One noteworthy comment from Kim to the South Korean special envoys last month was that he wished to be “taken seriously” during his talks with Moon and Trump. Kim also said he wanted to discuss the normalization of U.S.-North Korea ties.
One reason Kim is eager to have talks with the United States, pundits say, is that he is feeling threatened by a hawkish Trump administration that hasn’t shied away from attacking its adversaries with missiles, like Syria last weekend, when the United States joined British and French forces to target what they called facilities linked to the Syrian chemical weapons program in retaliation to a poisonous gas attack on civilians.
Another reason is that the North was feeling cornered by international sanctions, especially after China, its biggest trade partner, joined the bandwagon last year amid mounting pressure from the United States.
By agreeing to talk with Moon and Trump, Kim has placed himself in an extremely rare opportunity to fulfill a core part of his double-pillar “Byungjin Nosun” policy, which includes economic development. But the other pillar, nuclear weapons advancement, will have to be ditched.
BY KO SOO-SUK, JEONG YONG-SOO [firstname.lastname@example.org]