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North Korea’s Leader at Critical Crossroads Decade into Rule

Kim Jong Un has eliminated the broad suspicions that greeted his early attempts to prolong his family’s ruthless dynastic grip over North Korea after his father’s unexpected death ten years ago.

Hundreds of killings and purges targeting family members and the old guard shattered early forecasts of a regency, collective leadership, or military takeover. Kim has made it apparent that his authority is unassailable, thanks to relentless consolidation of power and a larger-than-life personality that seems tailor-built for expertly prepared TV propaganda.

However, as North Korea’s first millennial dictator celebrates a decade in power on Friday, Kim may be facing his biggest test yet, as crippling sanctions, a pandemic, and mounting economic woes collide. If Kim fails to keep his public promise to build both weapons and his stagnant economy, which many analysts believe is unachievable, his long-term leadership might be jeopardized.

Since 2016, when Kim increased his pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles targeting the United States and its Asian allies, the small economic development he gained via trade and market-oriented reforms has been followed by a tightening of international sanctions.

Kim is now locked at home, dealing with a deteriorating economy exacerbated by pandemic-related border closures, after relishing in the global limelight at summits with former US President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019.

Negotiations with Washington have been stuck for more than two years after he failed to gain Trump’s support for much-needed sanctions relief. President Joe Biden’s government appears to be in no rush to reach an agreement unless Kim agrees to scale back his nuclear weapons development, which he views as his “treasured sword” and his best hope for survival.

While Kim remains in command, it looks more doubtful that he would fulfill his declared aim of maintaining his nuclear weapons while also providing wealth to his destitute people. In his first public speech as leader in early 2012, Kim outlined this ambition, promising that North Koreans will “never have to tighten their belts again.”

According to Park Won Gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, how Kim handles the economy in the next years would decide the long-term stability of his reign and potentially the longevity of his family’s dynasty.

“The nuclear weapons program, the economy, and the regime’s stability are all linked.” If the nuclear problem isn’t handled, the economy won’t improve, which might lead to unrest and disarray in North Korea’s society, according to Park.

Kim absolutely needs the sanctions imposed by the US to be lifted in order to rebuild his economy, which has been harmed by decades of mismanagement and excessive military spending.

However, significant assistance from the United States may not be forthcoming unless Kim takes concrete moves toward disarmament. Despite his summitry efforts, Trump has shown little willingness to budge on sanctions, which he has regarded as Washington’s principal leverage over Pyongyang, and it’s questionable whether Kim will ever see any US president as prepared to deal with Pyongyang as Trump.

After their second meeting in February 2019, the Americans rejected North Korea’s proposal for a large lifting of sanctions in return for the demolition of an old nuclear site, which would have amounted to a partial surrender of its nuclear capability.

Since a failed follow-up meeting between working-level officials in October of that year, the two sides have not met publicly. Kim promised to build his nuclear weapons in the face of “gangster-like” US pressure at a domestic political convention two months later, encouraging his people to be resilient in the quest for economic self-reliance.

The worldwide COVID-19 dilemma, on the other hand, has impeded some of Kim’s primary economic aims by pushing the Korea into a self-imposed lockdown that has damaged commerce with China, its sole major ally and economic lifeline.

North Korea’s yearly commerce with China has decreased by two-thirds to $185 million, according to South Korea’s intelligence service, which just informed legislators. According to MPs briefed by the CIA, North Korean authorities are particularly concerned about food shortages, skyrocketing commodities prices, and a lack of medication and other necessary supplies, which have hastened the spread of water-borne illnesses like typhoid fever.

Talks with the US are now in limbo. The Biden administration has not given much more than open-ended discussions, despite the fact that its withdrawal from Afghanistan reflected a larger change in US strategy away from counterterrorism and so-called rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran and toward confronting China.

The North has so far rejected the proposal, claiming that Washington must first end its “hostile policy,” a word Pyongyang uses to refer to sanctions and joint military drills between the US and South Korea.

“North Korea would not give up its nuclear weapons under any circumstances,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “The only topic they are ready to discuss is topics connected to weapons control, not the pipe fantasy of denuclearization.”

Kim, on the other hand, may gain from the US-China standoff, which raises North Korea’s strategic worth to China, according to Lankov. China is ready to keep North Korea afloat by increasing food, gasoline, and other help, which relieves Kim of the need to talk with the US.

“North Korea would experience stagnation rather than growth, but not an extreme catastrophe,” Lankov said. “It’s an acceptable compromise for Kim Jong Un and his elite.”

In the midst of the country’s catastrophic border lockdown, North Korea has taken bold attempts to regain greater governmental control over the economy. This undoes Kim’s earlier reforms, which welcomed private investment and gave state firms and factories more autonomy and market incentives in order to boost domestic production and trade.

There have also been indications that North Korean officials are restricting the use of US dollars and other foreign currencies in marketplaces, ostensibly to avoid depleting foreign currency reserves.

Restoring central economic control might also be critical for mobilizing state resources so that Kim can continue to grow his nuclear program, which would be difficult to do otherwise as the economy deteriorates.

While Kim has put a three-year moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing, he has increased testing of shorter-range weapons that threaten US allies South Korea and Japan.

“Nukes got Kim into this jam,” said Go Myong-hyun, a senior analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Strategy Studies. “But he’s keeping a paradoxical policy of pushing nukes to get out of it.”

“The US-led sanctions regime will remain in place, and a return to a state-controlled economy has never been and will not be the answer for North Korea in the past or today.” Kim will have to make a difficult decision about how long he will keep his nuclear weapons at some time, and it might be soon,” Go noted.

Brian Cooper
Brian Cooper
Brian Cooper is a global reporter for TheOptic, focusing on bringing insights and developments for global and local breaking news daily. With almost seven years of experience covering topics from all over the world, Brian strives to make sure you stay up-to-date with what's going on in the world.
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