The following is adapted from Chung Min Lee’s book, The Hermit King: The Dangerous Game of Kim Jong Un, reprinted with the permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group. It is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
In a move that was choreographed to a T, Kim Jong Un’s sent his sister, Kim Yo Jong, to attend the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea — it was a masterful PR stroke. She became the rock star of the games, with worldwide media recording her every move. This was the new image that Kim wanted to convey, namely, that North Korea was more modern and savvy. The Olympic thaw was openly welcomed by South Korean President Moon Jae-In, who vested virtually his entire presidency on building a so-called peace regime between the two Koreas.
What Moon and Kim, and ultimately President Trump, wanted to overcome was nearly seven decades of entrenched enmity between the two Koreas. Kim’s grandfather and the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, launched the Korean War in 1950 that failed to communize the peninsula. But the war resulted in millions of civilian and military casualties. In the 1960s until the 1980s, North Korea tried to incite revolution in the South and undertook numerous terrorist attacks. In 1983, 18 members of then-South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan’s entourage were killed during a visit to Burma. More heinously, North Korean spies blew up a Korean Air Lines jet in November 1987 that killed 11 passengers and crew.
Even though Kim was reaching out Moon, the fact remained that North Korea has 1.2 million men under arms with a growing nuclear arsenal. South Korea’s 625,000-strong military was become increasingly modernized and buttressed by 28,000 U.S. Forces based in Korea. Was it possible to make real peace between the two Koreas?
During Trump’s first year in office, Kim continued to pressure Trump. In September 2017, North Korea tested its first hydrogen bomb, and Trump fumed that he stood ready, if necessary, to bomb North Korea back to the stone ages. But spurred on by the initial breakthrough in inter-Korean relations that led to three South-North summits in April, May, and September, Trump didn’t want to play second fiddle to anyone. He wanted the limelight all to himself, and he got it when he met Kim in Singapore in June 2018 — the first face-to-face meetings between a U.S. president and the North Korean dictator. Trump met Kim again in Hanoi in February 2019 to broker a nuclear deal that ultimately caved in.
It’s important to remember, however, that the optics surrounding Kim Jong Un throughout 2018 and well into 2019 is hardly the full story. Just two years after he became Supreme Leader in December 2013, he ordered the execution of his uncle, Jang Seong-thaek, who was instrumental in guiding him into power. Four years later, in February 2017, Kim had his older half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, assassinated at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Kim is more savvy and worldly than his father ever was. But he is also ruthless and a by-product of North Korea’s unique, family-run Mafia state.
This fact lies at the very heart of understanding North Korea under Kim Jong Un. High officials in the Moon administration believe that Kim is fundamentally different from his father and grandfather. Educated partially in Switzerland, Kim is more urbane, comfortable in his own skin, and supremely confident. He knows more about the outside world than the previous Great Leaders—he apparently is fond of Swiss cheese, foie gras, and very expensive wines, and he is a basketball fan, as the South Korean and some foreign press like to emphasize. But that’s not why Kim is holding on to power.
Kim Jong Un is a product not only of the Kim family dictatorship but also of a brutal political system. He was determined never to let his older half-brother become the next ruler, and fought mercilessly to become his father’s successor. Kim’s most important goal is to guarantee his hold on power and perpetuate the Kim dynasty; all else remains secondary. He knows that to do this he has to feed his lieutenants with hard currency and incentives; he must ensure that each accrues just enough power to balance, and if necessary destroy, other power brokers.
One of the errors many analysts make is mirror imaging— the belief that whomever you’re trying to understand must share some traits with you. Many North Korea observers believe that because Kim Jong Un desperately wants to make North Korea into a modern economy and join the twenty-first century, he has no choice but to implement reforms. They think that because Kim invests so much money in defense—about 20 to 25 percent of GDP—he will reallocate scarce resources from the military into the economic sector.
There is every indication that Kim wants to modernize North Korea. The state economy collapsed in the mid-1990s during the great famine that killed as many as 1.5 million North Koreans. The jangmadang, or free markets, that have sprung up across North Korea are the de facto economy. Kim has legalized them because there is no viable alternative. Visitors to Pyongyang have noticed growing traffic jams, greater attention to fashion, people talking on cell phones, and taxis picking up customers. There are fast-food restaurants that serve North Korean versions of pizza and hamburgers. The city’s apartment buildings have gotten fresh paint jobs. But the moment he crosses the Rubicon and allows structural economic reforms, as China and Vietnam have done, Kim enters a no-man’s-land. The primordial dilemma for Kim is that in order to save the North Korean state, he has to reform the system, but the moment he reforms the system, the regime runs the risk of collapsing.
“We should properly plan and thoroughly implement the national operations aimed at maintaining, reinforcing, and reengineering the national economy as a whole,” said Kim during his New Year’s speech in January 2019. If China did it, why not North Korea? Why can’t North Korea emulate Vietnam? These are fundamental questions.
When China embarked on economic reforms in 1978, Deng Xiaoping was able to do so because of the abject failure of Mao’s social, political, and economic policies. The disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958–1962) and the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) not only bankrupted China economically but set it back two generations. Deng embarked on reforms because China had no choice, but also because he wasn’t tied to Mao Zedong’s gargantuan failures. Kim Jong Un doesn’t have that luxury, since the hand that he was dealt came from his father and grandfather.
Vietnamese analyst Huong Le Thu, based at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, remarked that there are major differences between North Korea and Vietnam, including the power structure, despite the fact that they’re characterized as communist regimes. “While North Korea is run in a dynastic manner, the VCP [Vietnamese Communist Party] has been faithful to the institutionalized collective leadership. There has never been a dynastic succession of power in Vietnam, and in fact, even the most charismatic leader of the party and its founder—Ho Chi Minh—revered as the founding father of independent Vietnam, never enjoyed such absolute power within the party as fellow communist leaders: the Kim family, Mao Zedong, or Josef Stalin in their respected parties.”
Since early 2018, Kim has entered the world at a furious pace. He met with South Korean president Moon Jae-in for three summits, in April, May, and September 2018. For the first time, Kim sat with a U.S. president, in Singapore in June 2018. Regardless of Donald Trump’s clumsy diplomacy and his penchant for the limelight, he did what no other U.S. leader had done: He met face-to-face with a North Korean leader.
Trump pushed the envelope when he shook Kim’s hand for the third time on June 29, 2019, at the 38th parallel. Both Kim and Trump are reality TV stars who share a yearning for the limelight and constant reaffirmation of their “genius” leadership skills. After the failed second U.S.–North Korea summit in Hanoi in February 2019, Trump and Kim needed fresh momentum to keep their reality TV show running. No one knows what a final agreement will entail, but all Kim and Trump need to do is to push denuclearization under the carpet in the guise of a nuclear weapons freeze agreement.
Chinese president Xi Jinping didn’t allow Kim to visit Beijing until March 2018. Xi was upset that Kim continued to test nuclear weapons, including detonating a thermonuclear bomb in September 2017. It was essential for Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy, however, to be officially blessed by President Xi. For the second summit with Trump in Hanoi in February 2019, Kim traveled sixty hours by train from Pyongyang through China and finally to Vietnam. Although he left empty-handed, that meeting also shifted Kim’s international status, moving him away from being considered a pariah and toward being thought of as a young leader in a hurry. Kim had his first meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok on April 25, 2019.
The major stumbling block to normalized relations between the United States and North Korea is Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Estimates vary, but North Korea is thought to have between thirty and sixty nuclear warheads, with the ability to build three to five additional warheads annually. Ever since the first North Korean nuclear crisis erupted in 1993 when North Korea threatened to remove itself from the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—which it subsequently did—all diplomatic efforts have failed to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.
As important as nuclear weapons are, however, other threats remain. North Korea has more than a thousand ballistic missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. It has chemical and biological weapons, and it is increasingly adroit at launching cyberattacks.
Can Kim Jong Un afford to give up nuclear weapons? The short answer is no. There are many, including those in the South Korean government today, who believe that Kim is committed to denuclearization. As Trump found out in Hanoi, however, North Korea’s definition of denuclearization doesn’t coincide with America’s. Washington wants the total dismantling and destruction of all nuclear weapons. Pyongyang wants a phased reduction, and only after the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea is removed—in other words, it really doesn’t want to denuclearize at all.
The North Korean imbroglio is going to continue. There will continue to be high-level talks between the two Koreas and between the United States and North Korea. Given Kim’s affection for showmanship, one can’t rule out a trip to Seoul, but he will only do so when he is sure of getting major compromises and incentives from South Korea. And Kim’s ultimate diplomatic prize would be an invitation to Washington, D.C., to ink a nuclear freeze accord.
The second U.S.–North Korea summit in Hanoi ended abruptly. Trump said that he had no choice but to walk away rather than sign a bad deal. The U.S. president was deeply disappointed because he thought he could charm Kim into giving up his nuclear weapons, and he badly needs a major foreign policy victory going into the 2020 presidential election. Kim isn’t a seasoned leader, but he knows that without nuclear weapons, North Korea would not pose an existential threat to South Korea, Japan, or the United States.
Ultimately, “Mission: Impossible” best characterizes what Kim Jong Un wants to achieve: modernizing North Korea, without damaging his family-run dictatorship; luring South Korean investment and hard-currency earnings on the promise of greater inter-Korean exchange, without undertaking fundamental economic reforms; emulating his only patron, China, without making North Korea totally dependent on China; drawing South Korea much more closely into its orbit, without offering reciprocal measures; and normalizing relations with the United States, even while retaining his weapons of mass destruction.
He has, for now, a willing partner in President Moon, who also wants to ensure that the peace train remains on schedule. Kim is betting that despite Trump’s rhetoric of never giving in to North Korea’s nuclear blackmail, Trump will ultimately be tempted to go down in history as the president who brought lasting peace to the Korean Peninsula. Still, despite the seeming convergence of political interests between Kim, Moon, and Trump, a fundamental remaking of the Korean Peninsula can happen only if Kim Jong Un makes a strategic decision to save North Korea by dismantling the Kim dynasty. So long as he remains in power, however, Kim will never make that choice.
Chung Min Lee is the author of The Hermit King: The Dangerous Game of Kim Jong Un (November 2019.) He is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and chairman of the international advisory council of the International Institute for Strategic studies. He is an expert on Korean and East Asian security affairs with more than 30 years of experience in leading think tanks and universities in South Korea, the U.S., Japan, and Singapore. Lee served as Ambassador for National Security Affairs (2013-2016) and is the author of Fault Lines in a Rising Asia.