Kim in a corner

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Kim in a corner

Kim Byung-yeon
The author is an economics professor and head of the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.


Inter-Korean military communication lines have gone dead just two weeks after they were reconnected. That could be North Korea’s reaction to a South Korea-U.S. joint military exercise going ahead as scheduled despite a demand from Kim Yo-jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister and vice director of the Workers’ Party, that Seoul and Washington cancel it. But Pyongyang’s calculation is more complex than that. After the two allies prepared for a scaled-back drill, Kim Yo-jong went so far as to demand the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea followed by a threat from Kim Yong-chol, head of the United Front Department, to let South Koreans feel an acute sense of security crisis. Why did the North react to a scaled-down drill so angrily? Does the Moon Jae-in administration understand North Korea at all?

A clue to Kim Jong-un’s thinking comes from the information the North gives its own people. The regime released news on the bellicose statements by Kim Yo-jong and Kim Yong-chol but not news on the restoration two weeks ago of the military communication lines. At first glance, that decision is hard to understand. If the lines are reconnected, the North could expect economic aid from the South and that would surely help lift North Koreans’ support for their leader. If so, why did the regime hide such seeming good news and expose the bad news? To understand such a decision by the Pyongyang regime, you need to look from Kim Jong-un’s perspective.

A dictator exists for the sake of power. Kim sought to augment his power in return for an agreement to reconnect the communication lines. But if he should receive aid like rice or fertilizer for nothing, that translates into an admission of failure of the self-reliance he championed so ardently. That’s the last scenario Kim wants to see, particularly after his diplomatic skills failed in the Hanoi summit with the United States. To escalate his dignity as an impeccable leader, he needed to change the causal relationship. Simply put, the communication lines were connected because of South Korea’s persistent demand.

In fact, a cancellation of the joint drill could have served as a stroke of genius for Kim as it would have helped complete his propaganda narrative for his people. The line would go something like this: “As South Korea begged for the reconnection of the communication lines after even suspending the drill, I forgave them and agreed to the reconnection. After Seoul offered to provide us with economic aid in appreciation for my agreement, I generously accepted it.” North Korea’s propaganda machine would add this line too: “That’s a great victory Chairman Kim has brought about and a historic turning point to uphold the self-sufficient spirit of our great republic.”

The Moon Jae-in administration thwarted what Kim Jong-un wanted to achieve, as Moon carried out the military drill, albeit scaled-back, instead of cancelling it. The North Korean leader cannot use it for propaganda nor can explain why he agreed to the reconnection of the military communication lines. Kim ended up missing a precious opportunity to earn economic gains and strengthen his power base. Moreover, Kim could have hoped for more economic aid if Moon had suspended the drill in the face of U.S. opposition and that may have helped ease international sanctions. Kim demanded Moon make a big bet with less than nine months left in office. But his idea didn’t go down well. North Korea’s rough rhetoric signifies his disappointment.

Kim Jong-un faces a dilemma. Power can be consolidated when it is coupled with tangible accomplishments and dignity, but both are falling at the same time. The North’s economy is in dire shape. The Bank of Korea recently projected its economic growth at a negative 4.5 percent. But that estimate does not reflect rapidly shrunken market activities in the North. They are believed to have dwindled by at least more than 10 percent, an equivalent of a 2.5 percent reduction in its national income and a more than a seven percent drop in its growth rate. The regime has distributed military rice to the market after food prices soared. It is not certain when the pandemic — which forced the isolated country to entirely shut down its trade — will be over.

The deeper the dilemma Kim faces, the sooner the door to denuclearization will open. A North Korea policy that helps Pyongyang to believe there are other options than a complete denuclearization only backfires. A scaled-down joint drill also does not help as it cannot earn U.S. trust, not to mention protect our security. The Moon administration boasted of the reconnection of the military communication lines, but keeps mum now. The government looks like a student who always gives the same answer to different questions. Its gap between hope and competence is the broadest of all governments in South Korea. Even if the communication lines are connected once again, the government cannot deal with North Korea effectively. The Moon administration must analyze North Korea accurately. Walking a tightrope without much of a sense of balance is a very risky undertaking.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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