North Korea’s Kim at critical crossroads decade into rule

Dec 12, 2021, 6:22 PM | Updated: Dec 13, 2021, 9:57 am
FILE - In this April 15, 2012, file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves from a balcony at ...

FILE - In this April 15, 2012, file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves from a balcony at the end of a military parade at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea. Since taking power after his father's death in 2011, Kim has spent 10 years erasing doubts that he was too young and weak to extend his family’s brutal dynastic grip over the impoverished, nuclear-armed state. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)

(AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Too young. Too weak. Too inexperienced.

Since taking power following his father’s sudden death 10 years ago this week, Kim Jong Un has erased those widespread doubts that greeted his early attempts to extend his family’s brutal dynastic grip over North Korea.

Early predictions about a regency, a collective leadership or a military coup were crushed by an estimated hundreds of executions and purges targeting family members and the old guard. That ruthless consolidation of power, together with a larger-than-life personality seemingly made for carefully packaged TV propaganda, has allowed Kim to make clear that his authority is absolute.

But as North Korea’s first millennial dictator marks a decade in rule this Friday, he may be facing his toughest moment yet, as crushing sanctions, the pandemic and growing economic trouble converge. If Kim can’t uphold his public pledge to develop both nukes and his moribund economy, something many experts see as impossible, it could spell trouble for his long-term rule.

The modest economic growth he achieved for several years through trade and market-oriented reforms was followed by a tightening of international sanctions since 2016, when Kim accelerated his pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles targeting the United States and its Asian allies.

After basking in the global spotlight at summits with former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019, Kim is now stuck at home, grappling with a decaying economy worsened by pandemic-related border closures.

Negotiations with Washington have been deadlocked for more than two years after he failed to win badly needed sanctions relief from Trump. President Joe Biden’s administration seems in no hurry to cut a deal unless Kim shows a willingness to wind down his nuclear weapons program, a “treasured sword” he sees as his biggest guarantee of survival.

While still firmly in control, Kim appears increasingly unlikely to achieve his stated goals of simultaneously keeping his nukes and bringing prosperity to his impoverished populace. Kim laid out this goal in his first public speech as leader in early 2012, vowing that North Koreans would “never have to tighten their belts again.”

How Kim handles the economy in the coming years could determine the long-term stability of his rule and possibly the future of his family’s dynasty, said Park Won Gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University.

“The nuclear weapons program, the economy and the stability of the regime are all interconnected. If the nuclear issue doesn’t get resolved, the economy doesn’t get better, and that opens the possibility of disquiet and confusion in North Korea’s society,” Park said.

Kim desperately needs the removal of U.S.-led sanctions to build his economy, which has also been damaged by decades of mismanagement and aggressive military spending.

But meaningful U.S. relief may not come unless Kim takes concrete steps toward denuclearization. Despite his pursuit of summitry, Trump showed no interest in budging on sanctions, which he described as Washington’s main leverage over Pyongyang, and it’s unclear if Kim will ever see another U.S. president as willing to engage with the North as Trump was.

Their diplomacy fell apart after their second summit in February 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korea’s demand for a major removal of sanctions in exchange for dismantling an aging nuclear facility, which would have amounted to a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

The two sides haven’t met publicly since a failed follow-up meeting between working-level officials in October of that year. Two months after that Kim vowed at a domestic political conference to further expand his nuclear arsenal in the face of “gangster-like” U.S. pressure, urging his people to stay resilient in the struggle for economic self-reliance.

But the global COVID-19 crisis has hampered some of Kim’s major economic goals by forcing the country into a self-imposed lockdown that crippled its trade with China, its only major ally and economic lifeline.

South Korea’s spy agency recently told lawmakers that North Korea’s annual trade with China declined by two-thirds to $185 million through September 2021. North Korean officials are also alarmed by food shortages, soaring goods prices and a lack of medicine and other essential supplies that have accelerated the spread of water-borne diseases like typhoid fever, according to lawmakers briefed by the agency.

Talks with the United States are in limbo. The Biden administration, whose pullout from Afghanistan underscored a broader shift in U.S. focus from counterterrorism and so-called rogue states like North Korea and Iran to confronting China, has not offered much more than open-ended talks.

The North has so far rejected the overture, saying Washington must first abandon its “hostile policy,” a term Pyongyang mainly uses to refer to sanctions and U.S.-South Korea military exercises.

“North Korea is not going to surrender its nuclear weapons, no matter what,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “The only topic they are willing to talk about is not the pipe dream of denuclearization but rather issues related to arms control.”

Kim may benefit, however, from the Washington-Beijing confrontation, which increases North Korea’s strategic value to China, Lankov said. China is willing to keep North Korea afloat by expanding food, fuel and other aid, and that reduces pressure on Kim to negotiate with the United States.

“Instead of growth, North Korea will have stagnation, but not an acute crisis,” Lankov said. “For Kim Jong Un and his elite, it’s an acceptable compromise.”

North Korea has been taking aggressive steps to reassert greater state control over the economy amid the country’s pandemic border closure. This rolls back Kim’s earlier reforms, which embraced private investments and allowed more autonomy and market incentives to state enterprises and factories to facilitate domestic production and trade.

There have also been signs that North Korean officials are suppressing the use of U.S. dollars and other foreign currencies in markets, an apparent reflection of worry about depleting foreign currency reserves.

Restoring central control over the economy could also be crucial for mobilizing state resources so that Kim could further expand his nuclear program, which would otherwise be challenging as the economy worsens.

While Kim has suspended the testing of nuclear devices and long-range missiles for three years, he has ramped up testing of shorter-range weapons threatening U.S. allies South Korea and Japan.

“Nukes brought Kim to this mess, but he’s maintaining a contradictory policy of further pushing nukes to get out of it,” said Go Myong-hyun, a senior analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“The U.S.-led sanctions regime will persist, and a return to a state-controlled economy was never the answer for North Korea in the past and won’t be the answer now. At some point, Kim will face a difficult choice over how long he will hold on to his nukes, and that could happen relatively soon,” Go added.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Associated Press

Pro-Palestine mapping website raises alarm in Jewish groups

BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts’ Jewish community is on edge after a mysterious pro-Palestine website launched earlier this month listing the names and addresses of scores of local institutions — a number of them Jewish — and calling to “dismantle” and disrupt them. Creators of the Mapping Project say its interactive map of nearly 500 local […]
7 hours ago
Associated Press

Norway joins neighbors, offers extra booster shot to elderly

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Norway on Wednesday joined fellow Scandinavian countries in offering a second booster shot of COVID-19 vaccine to some of its population, to be available from July 1 to people aged 75 and over, because of a rise in infections. “There is a need to vaccinate our most vulnerable citizens,” Health Minister […]
7 hours ago
U.S. President Joe Biden waits for the start of a round table meeting at a NATO summit in Madrid, S...
Associated Press

US to boost military presence in Europe for Russia threat

MADRID (AP) — President Joe Biden said Wednesday that the U.S. will significantly increase its military presence in Europe for the long haul, including by establishing its first permanent presence in Poland, to bolster regional security after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the opening of the alliance’s annual leaders’ […]
7 hours ago
Associated Press

Police: Virginia toddler left in car dies, father kills self

CHESTERFIELD, Va. (AP) — A toddler accidentally left in a vehicle for hours died Tuesday and police said his father was found dead in an apparent suicide at their Virginia home, police said. Chesterfield County Police received a call around 11:45 a.m. indicating that an 18-month-old boy may have been left in a vehicle for […]
7 hours ago
In this photo made on Thursday, June 16, 2022, rows of fresh cut beef is in the coolers of the reta...
Associated Press

US economy slipped 1.6% to start year; return to growth eyed

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. economy shrank at a 1.6% annual pace in the first three months of the year, the government reported Wednesday in a slight downgrade from its previous estimate for January-March quarter. It was the first drop in gross domestic product — the broadest measure of economic output — since the second […]
7 hours ago
Follow @ktar923...
Sponsored Content by Arizona Department of Health Services

Great news: Children under 5 can now get COVID-19 vaccine

After more than two years of battle with an invisible killer, we can now vaccinate the youngest among us against COVID-19. This is great news.

Sponsored Articles

Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Vaccines are safe if you are pregnant or breastfeeding

Are you pregnant? Do you have a friend or loved one who’s expecting?
Day & Night Air

Tips to lower your energy bill in the Arizona heat

Does your summer electric bill make you groan? Are you looking for effective ways to reduce your bill?
Christina O’Haver

BE FAST to spot a stroke

Every 40 seconds—that’s how often someone has a stroke in the United States. It’s the fifth leading cause of death among Americans, with someone dying of a stroke every 3.5 minutes.
North Korea’s Kim at critical crossroads decade into rule