A bird that can fly out of the cage
The author is the director of the Institute for Future Strategy, Seoul National University.
“Kim Jong-un is like a bird in a cage. He may chirp away as much as he wishes, but cannot fly freely,” I wrote in a column on the JoongAng Ilbo in December 2019. Kim appears to be venturing out of the cage, sending the Korean Peninsula into turmoil again.
The cage has been locked with international sanctions and U.S.-Chinese relations. China fed the bird, but made sure it stayed in the cage so as not to ruin relationship with America. It used North Korea as a bargaining chip with the U.S. and at the same time tried to control Pyongyang in order not to rattle the security on the peninsula with excessive provocation and keep U.S. pressure at bay. Beijing allowed tourists to visit North Korea and also condoned trade, food and energy aid in violation of UN sanctions until the North sealed the borders due to Covid-19. Chinese influence over Pyongyang remains intact.
North Korea’s aspiration to better the economy also depends on China. If Kim defies Beijing’s opposition in its provocation, China could toughen sanctions. Kim could not act freely because he had to be watchful of Beijing, and Beijing of Washington.
The subtle geopolitical balance was shaken by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. As the U.S.-China confrontation shifted to a U.S.-Russia contest, Beijing’s strategic position was elevated. The U.S. has removed tariffs on 352 Chinese imports. Washington preoccupied with Ukraine cannot pressure Beijing even after military provocation by Pyongyang. North Korea and China know the Joe Biden administration won’t respond aggressively with “fire and fury” as Donald Trump did. Kim may have judged that these days were the best time to carry out sensitive military tests. Provocations won’t likely invite scorn from Beijing and also can keep the incoming conservative administration in Seoul from outright favoring Washington.
While geopolitical changes are relevant, worsening economic hardship is the structural reason for the provocations. The gravity of economic crisis in North Korea can be surmised from the study of the correlation between nighttime lighting and economic growth. The international study co-authored by Professor Kim Kyu-chul projected that North Korean manufacturing output fell by 20 percent between 2017 and 2019. Prof. Kim Da-ul found that illumination in North Korean areas of trade and market activities darkened after sanctions. Since hardship would have been aggravated by the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, the North Korea economy is estimated to shrink 30 percent from 2017 through the end of this year. The affliction on public lives could be as hard as during the Arduous March period in the 1990s. Covid-19 could be blamed for the hardship for now, but if dire economic straits continue even after the virus spread subsides, Kim could be defeated in his battle.
To achieve denuclearization, the structural factor must be emphasized. Pyongyang must come to the rude awakening that economic recovery won’t come even when the Covid-19 threat disappears. That cannot be achieved without the help of China. Kim would bolt out of the cage if intense sanctions of the late 2017 — or at least in the level of pre-Covid-19 — are not sustained.
The unfavorable geopolitical condition must also be corrected. The odds depend on when and how the Ukraine crisis is resolved. If the U.S. has to offer more carrots to China to prevent it from forming a joint front with Moscow, the door to the cage of Kim would open wider. What will be Washington’s strategy on Beijing, how it will it arrange competition and cooperation or pressure and persuasion?
In an age of geopolitical complexity, simple-mindedness is of no help. Idealists who chanted peace before North Korea took a first step towards denuclearization or wishful thinkers who declared Kim had chosen the economy over nuclear must both stay away from policy making. The same goes for pessimists who believe Kim would never surrender nuclear weapons. Dictatorship came more from internal implosion than external factors. Absolute dictators do not use the word “absolute.” Everything except for regime viability is relative. Policy space will become limited if denuclearization is understood strictly.
Kim is the biggest prisoner of simplicity. Nuclear alone cannot safeguard power. Economic hardship triggered civilian uprising that led to the Arab Spring in Tunisia. The Ukraine crisis stemmed from economic failure and corruption after the Soviet collapse, not because nuclear weapons were disbanded. The more Kim clings to the nuclear arsenal, the worse the economy will get. Kim is pushing himself further into the cage. His thinking that the world as seen from the cage is everything is ruining North Korea. A bird who cannot see well cannot fly far and will fall.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.