Seoul, South Korea
Too young. Too weak. Too inexperienced.
Since taking power following the sudden death of his father 10 years ago, Kim Jong Un has erased the widespread doubts that greeted his first attempts to expand his family’s brutal dynastic hold over the North Korea.
Early predictions of a regency, collective leadership or military coup were shattered by hundreds of executions and purges targeting family members and the Old Guard. This ruthless consolidation of power, coupled with a larger-than-life personality seemingly designed for carefully packaged TV propaganda, made Kim clear that his authority is absolute.
But as North Korea’s first millennial dictator marks a decade in power this Friday, he may be facing his most difficult time yet, as crushing sanctions, pandemic and growing economic problems converge. . If Kim cannot deliver on his public pledge to develop both nuclear weapons and his dying economy, which many experts see as impossible, it could cause problems for his long-term rule.
The modest economic growth he achieved over several years through trade and market-oriented reforms has been followed by stiffening international sanctions since 2016, when Kim stepped up his pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles targeting them. United States and their Asian allies.
After being in the global spotlight at summits with former US President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019, Kim is now stuck at home, struggling with a declining economy made worse by border closures linked to the pandemic.
Negotiations with Washington have been deadlocked for more than two years after it failed to secure much-needed sanctions relief. President Joe Biden’s administration seems in no rush to strike a deal unless Kim shows willingness to end his nuclear weapons program, a “precious sword” he sees as his greatest guarantee of survival .
While remaining firmly in control, Kim appears increasingly unlikely to achieve his stated goals of simultaneously retaining nuclear weapons and bringing prosperity to his impoverished population. Kim stated this goal in his first public speech as a leader in early 2012, promising that North Koreans would “never have to tighten their belts again.”
How Kim runs the economy in the years to come could determine the long-term stability of his rule and possibly the future of his family’s dynasty, said Park Won Gon, professor of Korea studies. North at Seoul Ewha Women’s University.
âThe nuclear weapons program, the economy and the stability of the regime are all interconnected. If the nuclear issue is not resolved, the economy will not improve, and this opens up the possibility of worry and confusion in North Korean society, âPark said.
Kim desperately needs the removal of US-led sanctions to build his economy, which has also been damaged by decades of mismanagement and aggressive military spending.
But significant relief from the United States might not come unless Kim takes concrete steps towards denuclearization. Despite his pursuit of the summit, Trump has shown no interest in dropping sanctions, which he has described as Washington’s main lever on Pyongyang, and it is not clear whether Kim will ever see another US president so willing to engage with the North than Trump was.
Their diplomacy collapsed after their second summit in February 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korea’s demand for a major lifting of sanctions in exchange for the dismantling of an aging nuclear facility, which would have amounted to a partial transfer of its nuclear capacities.
The two sides have not met publicly since the failure of a follow-up meeting between operational-level officials in October of the same year. Two months after that, Kim pledged at a national political conference to further expand his nuclear arsenal in the face of “gangster-type” American pressure, urging his people to remain resilient in the struggle for economic self-sufficiency.
But the global COVID-19 crisis has hampered some of Kim’s main economic goals by forcing the country into a self-imposed lockdown that has crippled its trade with China, its only major ally and economic lifeline.
The South Korean spy agency recently told lawmakers that North Korea’s annual trade with China fell by two-thirds to $ 185 million through September 2021. North Korean officials are also alarmed by food shortages, skyrocketing commodity prices and the lack of drugs and other essential supplies that have accelerated the spread of water-borne illnesses like typhoid fever, according to lawmakers briefed by the agency.
Talks with the United States are in limbo. The Biden administration, whose withdrawal from Afghanistan underscored a broader shift in US focus from counterterrorism and so-called rogue states like North Korea and Iran to confrontation with the China has not offered much more than open talks.
The North has so far rejected openness, saying Washington must first abandon its “policy of hostility,” a term Pyongyang uses primarily to refer to US-Korean sanctions and military exercises.
âNorth Korea will not surrender its nuclear weapons no matter what,â said Andrei Lankov, professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. “The only subject they are willing to talk about is not the chimera of denuclearization, but rather the issues of arms control.”
Kim, however, could benefit from the Washington-Beijing confrontation, which increases North Korea’s strategic value to China, Lankov said. China is ready to keep North Korea afloat by increasing food, fuel and other aid, which reduces the pressure on Kim to negotiate with the United States.
âInstead of growth, North Korea will experience stagnation, but not an acute crisis,â Lankov said. “For Kim Jong Un and his elite, this is an acceptable compromise.”
North Korea has taken aggressive steps to reaffirm increased state control over the economy as part of the country’s pandemic border closure. This reverses Kim’s earlier reforms, which embraced private investment and granted more autonomy and business incentives to state-owned enterprises and factories to facilitate domestic production and trade.
There have also been signs that the North Korean authorities are removing the use of the US dollar and other foreign currencies in markets, an apparent reflection of concern over the depletion of foreign exchange reserves.
Restoring central control over the economy could also be crucial in mobilizing state resources so Kim can further expand his nuclear program, which would otherwise be difficult as the economy worsens.
While Kim suspended testing of nuclear devices and long-range missiles for three years, he stepped up testing of shorter-range weapons threatening allies of the United States, South Korea and Japan.
âNuclear weapons got Kim into this mess, but he maintains a contradictory policy of pushing nuclear weapons more to get out of this,â said Go Myong-hyun, senior analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. .
âThe US-led sanctions regime will persist, and a return to a state-controlled economy has never been the answer for North Korea in the past and will not be now. At some point, Kim will be faced with a difficult choice as to how long he will keep his nuclear weapons, and it could happen quite quickly, âGo added.