It’s Kim Jong-un’s turn
*The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
North Korea’s computer software coding aptitude came up as a topic in a forum in which economists were discussing ways to draw North Korea into the global economy after it denuclearizes. Students from North Korea’s elite Kim Il Sung University topped the International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC), dubbed CodeChef, in 2015, its second feat after beating the Google team from the United States in 2013. This is indeed a wonder, given the poor internet access in the country.
The coding wiz team is being groomed by Swiss-educated Kim Jong-un. The young leader has been emphasizing technology and science, naming it a top priority at the Workers’ Party’s Central Committee plenary session in April. North Korea reportedly trains math elites night and day to build them as the soft power army of North Korea. The coding mavens are part of Kim’s secret army.
The historic summit between the United States and North Korea slated for June 12 in Singapore is expected to lead to the deal of the century. The outcome could include a roadmap towards North Korea’s complete denuclearization and permanent security guarantees. To be a powerhouse of science and technology as Pyongyang envisions, it must be true and honest in its commitments. What Washington wants to hear is not vaguely worded formalities, but a concrete action plan.
Many still suspect North Korea could be up to something. It declared a suspension of nuclear tests and blew up its nuclear test site in Punggye-ri. Its communist party mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun said in an editorial on May 28 that the regime will proceed with denuclearization on its own “timetable” and claimed its suspension of nuclear test is a part of “global nuclear arms buildup.” It was strongest indication that it will stay nuclear-armed and demand benefits — easing sanctions and aid — through what it calls a “phased and simultaneous process” instead of a fast and packaged settlement as demanded by the United States. Moreover, North Korea suddenly announced a freeze in nuclear testing after it carried out back-to-back tests and claimed to have weaponized missiles. Its action is identical to what India and Pakistan had done. It may be attempting to secure nuclear power status like India and Pakistan by buying time to make Seoul and Washington grow immune to North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
We hope these suspicions prove to be wrong. But Pyongyang so far has not given clear answers to dispel such skepticism. Upon receiving a letter in a big envelope from Kim Jong-un, U.S. President Donald Trump confirmed the June 12 summit was back on track and said there won’t necessarily be a signing at the Singapore meeting as more meetings could be needed. Given the showy ways of Kim and Trump, the two may end the summit with a self-congratulatory agreement. Both need to take home a winning trophy. Yet the meeting could end up a catastrophe if Washington smells foul play.
Kim must make a choice. He must be sincere in ushering his country onto the path of denuclearization. He must be able to clear out up the lingering doubts among South Koreans and Americans. President Moon Jae-in is different from his predecessor Park Geun-hye. She seriously believed Pyongyang was crumbling and banned any inter-Korean contact. But Moon pursued détente and invited North Koreans to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics despite strong protests from conservatives and set the path for dialogue between the two Koreas and Pyongyang and Washington.
Moon discreetly met with the chiefs of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to pitch for their support for North Korean development. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States envisions “a strong, connected and secure, prosperous” North Korea if it commits itself to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. Kim must have faith in South Korea and the United States. He must end the vicious cycle of signing an agreement and then scrapping it. Song Min-soon, former foreign minister under President Roh Moo-hyun and Seoul’s point man in six-party talks, said Trump and Moon’s new approach could provide an opportunity to solve the impasse in the North Korean nuclear problem. His prophesy has become real. The North Korean affair has entered an entirely new phase thanks to radical leaders like Moon and Trump. Kim envisions tens of industrial parks like the inter-Korean joint venture complex at Kaesong. He ordered officials to study economic systems of other countries as the country no longer can be sustained on its outmoded model. The players are ready for a game in a different league. They must play like a new team.
North Korea will be shunned by international society as well as kill the dialogue momentum with South Korea and the United States if it fakes denuclearization. Pompeo emphasized it was up to North Korea if it wants a historic outcome and enter a new era of peace and prosperity. Over 9,200 nuclear scientists and engineers are said to be behind the North Korean nuclear program. It won’t be easy to part with its decades of work.
But North Korea must abandon its commitment to nuclear development. The math and science brains of North Korea can help make their country a powerhouse in science and technology. South Korea and the United States have put all their hearts into this summit. It’s Kim’s turn to show his cards.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 4, Page 31