Kim’s struggle to juggle interests
*The author is a political science professor at Wellesley College and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
It’s been a roller coaster ride for anyone following plans for a June 12 summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. The actors were contradictory, the stage sets numerous and the messages chaotic. Within days of Trump’s May 24 cancellation of the Singapore meeting — and then the withdrawal of his withdrawal — President Moon Jae-in of South Korea met with the U.S. president in Washington and with the North Korean leader on the northern side of the demilitarized zone to help keep the summit alive. Meanwhile, U.S. officials flew to the DMZ and Singapore and a top North Korean official came to New York to plan (again) for the encounter.
As riveting as this turbulent drama may be, such external events are not the drivers of Pyongyang’s decision-making. Since the beginning of 2018, when Kim began his active campaign to portray his regime as a serious international player and hypothetically cooperative partner, analysts and commentators have been obsessed with whether Kim is sincere or staging an elaborate hoax. No one can know what Pyongyang’s “real” intentions are. But we can look inside the North Korean society for clues.
Monday’s reports that Pyongyang has shuffled top military leaders before the Singapore summit gives us hints about possible power politics within North Korea and the complexity of managing domestic and foreign policy for the Kim regime. Without doubt, the military’s blessings and support are essential to any plans for even minimal denuclearization or significant efforts at warming up relations with Seoul, Washington, Beijing (and possibly Tokyo in the near future). The Kim-Moon summit of April 27 offered visual evidence of support from the highest ranks of the military for Kim’s new diplomatic overtures. There were no economic experts in the North Korean delegation, but three of the nine members not related to Kim by blood were literally the top brass: General Pak Yong-sik, minister of the People’s Armed Forces; General Ri Myong-su, chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army and General Kim Yong-chol, the former spy chief who reportedly masterminded the torpedoing of a South Korean naval vessel in 2010. Additionally, Ri Son-gwon, who heads the bureau akin to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, is an expert on the military’s interests and priorities; he served as the head of the National Defense Commission’s policy department before assuming his current position in 2016 and has been a negotiator on military matters with the South since 2006.
In contrast to the two earlier inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007, which did not include military officials in the formal list of North Korean delegates, the April meeting was starkly different. The generals wore their crisp uniforms, amply adorned with medals and ribbons. For me, the most surprising image was the military salute Generals Ri and Pak — two of the generals now reported to have lost their jobs — gave President Moon of South Korea. The message from the optics was clear: Kim’s DMZ crossing and diplomatic engagement with archenemies have the full backing of the armed forces.
But buy-in at the top should not be equated with the military and nuclear establishment’s support from the bottom up. A 2016 report titled “A Study on the Party-Military Relations of the Kim Jong-un Regime,” commissioned by the South Korean Ministry of Unification, noted that the North Korean military might seek a “military-centric government” or intervene to reshape the country’s struggling economy if the Kim leadership failed to provide economic relief (partially from international sanctions). In February 2018, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service briefed the national legislature that “discontent was brewing” in the North Korean military.
In April 2018, at a plenary meeting of top officials in the Worker’s Party, Kim officially ended the byungjin (“parallel progress”) strategy that had prioritized military and nuclear development as a platform for economic development, and instead emphasized his passion for economic and scientific development. According to The New York Times, he has promoted Pyongyang’s nuclear scientists as heroes, even building them their own “Future Scientists Street” — a Pyongyang residential complex of gleaming steel and glass towers constructed in 2015. In various speeches, such as the 2018 New Year’s address, he has showered praise and adulation for those advancing science and technology, especially the country’s “defense scientists and workers who made devoted efforts all the year round.”
If denuclearization were to progress, how would scientists and technicians feel after having been lauded and feted as indispensable to the North’s existence? Recent lessons from the disintegration of the Soviet Union provide some answers. When Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons after signing the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, its massive missile factory, Yuzhmash, lost thousands of workers. Many reportedly went to North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan to work in the nuclear industry; some stole and sold missile parts illegally. Individual survival replaced national interests, what Yuzhmash in-house historian Vladimir Platonov called “our pride” in keeping “the Americans up at night.” Preventing nuclear proliferation via “loose scientists,” not just “loose nukes,” must be integrated into any North Korean denuclearization strategy.
Although outside critics of the April Kim-Moon summit lamented that North Koreans were kept in the dark about the historic meeting and subsequent developments, the regime has been highly active “informing” its citizens to expect big changes. North Korean state media covered the Panmunjom meeting quite elaborately the day after the summit, in contrast to the more subdued descriptions that accompanied the previous inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007. Generally, the state media has promoted optimistic interpretations of inter-Korean relations and created propaganda posters and other public messages to emphasize key points in the joint Panmunjom Declaration: peace, cooperation, and unity.
Of course, propaganda can always be changed at will in a dictatorship. But the masses are not unthinking automatons. For North Korea, dismantling the political rhetoric, organizational investments and personal interests associated with the nuclear program will be a necessary component of any denuclearization process. North Koreans will require basic explanations for why after decades of living one way — with nuclear aspirations reigning supreme and readiness for war as a legitimate sacrifice — they now need to put these ambitions aside and make friends with foes.
There is much speculation about why Kim Jong-un dumped Generals Pak and Ri for younger officers: suspicion of insufficient loyalty and related fear of a coup when he departs for the meeting with Trump; continuing trust in the two elders to prevent a coup while he is away; general reshuffling of the armed forces top leadership, which had already begun in late May.
There is also the possibility that the two replacements, General No Kwang-chol as defense minister and Ri Yong-gil as the chief of the Korea People’s Army, simply are politically more savvy and technically more competent to assist in the summit diplomacy and the upcoming high-level negotiations with the South Korean military on a range of issues from improving military-to-military communications to cooperation and peace in the West Sea and the Northern Limit Line (disputed and conflict-ridden maritime areas), to reducing armaments and guard stations along the DMZ.
We will probably see more personnel changes in various bureaucracies if diplomacy picks up momentum. Political rhetoric that is contradictory and confusing to the outside world also will likely grow if the regime earnestly tries to chart a new path. Even a dictator like Kim needs to get minimal buy-in from the 25 million people in his country, especially the military establishment, and his iron fist does have limits. If his regime fails to manage the North’s changing internal politics, Kim’s efforts at external outreach will be in danger.