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9 December 2022

What Kim Jong Un really wants

North Korea’s leader has started his second decade in power with a slew of missile tests and revealed his young daughter to the world. What is his endgame?

By John Delury

Kim Jong Un has ordered so many missile tests this year that it is getting hard to keep count, with rockets launched underwater from an inland lake and fired in the dead of night, landing in South Korean waters and overflying Japan. As if this were not enough to make the point, on 19 November Kim unveiled his big gun, the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile. But curiously, the 25-metre-high ICBM, largest of its kind in the world, was upstaged by a petite figure in a white jacket and red shoes standing a mere metre and a half tall: Kim’s daughter Ju Ae, thought to be no more than nine or ten, in her first public appearance.

The odd juxtaposition of doting father and curious daughter holding hands in front of North Korea’s “monster missile” called to mind another strange propaganda signal sent the previous month, on the anniversary of Kim’s Workers’ Party. Sure, there were plenty of missile tests in the lead up, but on 10 October the Workers Newspaper featured a relaxed, beaming Kim on an inspection visit not to a missile silo but a greenhouse. He was pictured proudly holding a pair of green peppers, one in the palm of each hand. Kim keeps promising his people that he will keep them (and their children) safe, and also put food on their table.  

When Kim first took over as leader of North Korea after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011 he was not expected to deliver on either promise. He was widely dismissed as young and inexperienced, and his ascension led experienced observers to predict the imminent collapse of North Korea as we know it. Yet more than a decade later Kim’s grasp on power looks more secure than ever. He has brutally eliminated threats from within his own family, ordering his uncle to be executed and his elder half-brother assassinated. Kim has also stacked the party, military and government nomenklatura with men who owe their position to him. He has demoted his father’s generals and promoted marshals of his own, forcing elderly cadres into retirement and appointing middle-aged technocrats, as well as cultivating ties to local officials through invitations to the capital and visits to the provinces.  

With no civil society outside the state and no viable political alternative to rule by the Workers’ Party, we have not seen even the faintest hints of a Pyongyang Spring. The anti-war demonstrations in Russia or anti-lockdown clashes in China – let alone the protests rocking Iran – are without any corollary in North Korea. While the belated Covid outbreak in the country this spring may have been more serious than officials acknowledged, there is no sign that the virus or the containment measures have led to instability or a credible challenge to Kim’s continued rule.

Indeed, the most serious threat to Kim’s rule would appear to be his personal health. He has long been a heavy smoker and was morbidly obese until shedding some of that weight in 2021.

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Instead of continually focusing on the possibility (fuelled by wishful analytical thinking) that Kim’s regime might collapse, it would be better to focus on where he is going, and how he sees his country ten years from now. In 2032, after all, he will still be in his prime – around 50 years old – and embarking, he surely believes, on his third decade in power.

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[See also: Keeping up with the Kims: North Korea’s communist monarchy]

One thing upon which almost all experts agree is that there is little chance that he will give up his nuclear weapons any time soon, if ever. But this raises the question: what are all the missiles for? Is Kim a prudent strategist cannily playing a weak hand by maximising asymmetric advantages? Or is he a risk-prone revanchist bent on coercive diplomacy against South Korea and the United States? To understand where he is going, we first need to look back at his past.

Although the world tends to focus almost entirely on the nukes, Kim Jong Un’s most important long-term priority is probably the one he first articulated in his inaugural address to his countrymen in April 2012, when he promised they would not have to “tighten their belts again”. Instead, he insisted, they would “enjoy the wealth and prosperity of socialism as much as they like”.

As he emerged from the shadow of his father, who ruled North Korea from 1994 to 2011, Kim spurred a wave of promising economic reforms in agriculture and industry and left the country’s grassroots markets largely alone, leading to a few years of solid growth. But by his five-year mark he had shifted the emphasis from butter to guns, conducting a series of nuclear and missile tests that upset even his nominal ally China and led to harsh UN Security Council sanctions in late 2017. Several months later he abruptly pivoted back to the economy, declaring his nuclear deterrent complete in January 2018 and setting out a new strategic line at a party meeting that April, which would “concentrate all efforts of the whole party and country on the socialist economic construction”.

Kim grew bullish. In the spring of 2018 he insisted to North Korea’s nouveau riche (known as donju) and the long-suffering masses that his real strategic objective was economic development. The world, alas, was more interested in the drama of Kim’s summit with Donald Trump in Singapore that June, with international media outlets covering every twist in the theatrics even as television pundits disparaged the meeting for its theatricality. When the two men met the following February in Hanoi for more substantive negotiations Kim was open about what he wanted. He asked for sanctions relief and offered to dismantle his main nuclear complex (at Yongbyon) in return. The fact that they failed to reach a deal should not obscure the significance of Kim’s request. This gave us the clearest indication yet of what Kim wants and what he is prepared to give in order to get it. But the quiet collapse of the Hanoi summit, which was a function of Trump’s loss of interest in a deal with Kim, scuppered the opportunity to see how far Kim was prepared to go. The Covid-19 pandemic that hit in early 2020 and the election of Joe Biden as US president later that year closed the possibility of another such opportunity.

As Kim proved his staying power, a new fear arose among observers in Washington and allied capitals. Whereas earlier speculation focused on the apparent danger of North Korea’s imminent collapse, the advances in the country’s nuclear and missile programme over the last decade have stoked the inverse fear – that Kim is preparing to invade the South and reunify the Korean Peninsula by force. But a careful analysis suggests that these fears are misguided. Instead, the North Korean leader’s primary ambition for 2032 appears to be running a country that is no longer dismissed as an economic backwater.

Kim has regularly chastised himself in public for his shortcomings as a leader and the difficulties faced by the North Korean people. Two years ago, during the celebrations for the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party in October 2020, Kim cried penitently during his speech for his failure to reduce the people’s hardship. Ten years from now, if North Korea (unlikely as it sounds) were to emerge as Asia’s latest tiger economy, Kim could declare his strategic line a brilliant success and proudly announce that, after two hard-fought decades, he had finally delivered on his initial promise. Lifting standards of living up to what Chinese Communist leaders call “moderate prosperity” would be an epochal achievement for Kim, securing a legacy surpassing his father and grandfather, neither of whom mastered the art of economic development.

To realise this ambition of economic modernisation, however, Kim will have to make hard choices. Even in a best-case scenario of state-led capitalism along the model offered by Communist Party-run China and Vietnam, the domestic sources of economic development are limited. There is simply not enough investment capital, personal wealth or market demand to generate dramatic growth. Whether his comrades like it or not (and many won’t), Kim will have to open up the country if he is serious about achieving national prosperity.

The easiest place to look for increased trade and investment is across the northern border, where both China and Russia are calling for sanctions relief and economic engagement with North Korea. Although the volume of trade with Russia traditionally has been quite modest, one can imagine significant increases in energy imports as other countries wean themselves off Russian gas and oil. North Korean overseas workers in fields like construction and forestry, while banned by UN resolutions, could come into demand as replacement labour in Russia’s wartime economy. China, meanwhile, has long been the dominant trade partner and foreign investment source for North Korea. The trade volume could rise rapidly if Kim opened the floodgates (including the recently built, mostly unused Friendship Bridge between that links the two nations) to Chinese entrepreneurs and investors.

[See also: How Xi Jinping views the world]

There is one obvious flaw in this plan. Assuming Pyongyang is not about to jettison its nuclear deterrent and embark on a process that might lead to UN sanctions being lifted, Beijing would have to lobby for those sanctions to be eased or else openly violate resolutions to which it is a signatory. The former strategy is unlikely to work given that the US, UK and France will veto sanctions relief without meaningful denuclearisation, while the latter is problematic because brazen sanctions infractions would discredit China’s claims to be a responsible security council member. A third option of trying to keep such large-scale economic activity secret is functionally impossible given the intensive surveillance of North Korea’s land and sea borders.

And there is another, less obvious problem. Even if Kim were to succeed in attracting renminbi and roubles, he would face a foreign trade duopoly. Pyongyang would become almost entirely dependent on two countries for macroeconomic stability and future growth. Kim inherited a dangerous dependency on China from his father, which was precisely why he allowed relations to deteriorate so precipitously with Xi Jinping during his first years in power, refusing even to visit Beijing until 2018. Despite the warm words from officials about the two countries being “as close as lips and teeth”, Sino-North Korean relations have been coloured by mutual suspicion, distrust and even contempt, going back to the Korean War (1950-53). If North Korea were to achieve rapid growth based on Chinese capital, while at the same time relying on a Chinese defence treaty and Chinese diplomacy, the autonomy of the regime would be in jeopardy.

The radical alternative to relying on the emerging Sino-Russian bloc is for Kim to engineer a breakthrough in relations with the United States. On the basis of an agreement with Washington, North Korea could gain access to a whole new world of markets and business partners. The nearest source of capital would be South Korea, although the vulnerabilities this would create for the security of Kim’s regime would presumably circumscribe the degree of engagement he was prepared to tolerate. Unmediated exposure to the open society and political liberties of the South could have destabilising effects, while the economic sophistication of conglomerates like Samsung, LG and Hyundai could easily overpower their counterparts in the North. But two countries Kim visited during his year of summitry in 2018 – Singapore and Vietnam – might represent natural economic partners, with fewer ideological strings attached. 

This second path is a far more ambitious and perilous one. It would require Kim to satisfy certain basic requirements of US-South Korean security demands, without jeopardising his own fundamental security by surrendering his nuclear deterrent. It would depend upon a radical rethink of strategy by the White House and sustained political will in Washington to break with the failed denuclearisation-sanction-deterrence policy of the past three decades. Inevitably, this process would introduce elements of instability to a system predicated on control and isolation. The risks would be even greater than the pursuit of nuclear arms – then again, so would the rewards. By 2032 Kim could be on the way to realising the long-sought goal that eluded his father, of making North Korea into a “strong and prosperous big power”.

Of course, this assumes that Kim Jong Un will still be at the helm a decade from now. Although, barring a health incident, Kim can feel fairly assured about his prospects for remaining in power, he will soon run up against a different problem, one that is familiar to all dynasts: the question of an heir apparent. If intelligence reports about Kim’s progeny are accurate, his eldest son should be graduating from university in 2032, making him eligible to begin the political grooming process that Kim and his father before him underwent around that age. Kim’s recently unveiled daughter, Ju Ae, would also be college age and perhaps in competition for the crown.

If Kim is determined to prepare the way for a fourth generation of family rule, at some point he should initiate a succession process of some kind. While most Korea experts would assume a male lineage, it is not unthinkable that Kim might opt for his daughter. He is himself the product of tanistry (succession to the most able offspring) rather than primogeniture, and a 21st-century extension of that principle would be for Kim to entrust the supreme leadership role to his daughter. Kim has promoted his sister Yo Jong to high office, while his elder brother Jong Chul is nary to be seen; and last year Kim appointed the first woman, Choe Son Hui, to serve as foreign minister in the country’s history.

It is also conceivable that Kim might do away with the hereditary principle entirely. He may wish to spare his children the experience, or they may show no interest or no aptitude for it (although Ju Ae already appears to be curious about ICBMs). Converting the Korean Workers’ Party, as opposed to the Kim family, into the true ruling organ of North Korea would make it look more like fraternal communist party states in China and Vietnam. Then again, this would deprive the regime of a central component of its mythical legitimacy, as successive leaders claim a sacred “Paektu blood” link to the “eternal president” and founding leader, Kim Il Sung (the current leader’s grandfather). Even if Kim Jong Un is in good health physically and politically in 2032, the issue of succession will be increasingly hard to ignore, and how he manages the question of what next is likely to shape the third decade of his reign in profound and unpredictable ways.  

With Nato focused on Russian aggression in Ukraine and Asia Pacific countries worried about US-China rivalry, storm clouds have been gathering over the Korean Peninsula all year. North Korea is emerging out of the preternatural quiet of the Covid-19 lockdown, when it cut off virtually all cross-border trade, by resuming and accelerating the pace of missile tests. Pyongyang has already staged more tests this year than any other on record, and intelligence agencies anticipate a seventh nuclear test could come at any time.

The confrontation between Russia and the West creates an opportunity for Kim. Vladimir Putin’s war has put Xi Jinping in an awkward position, as China tries to maintain its special relationship with Russia while deflecting international opprobrium for doing nothing to stop the violence in Ukraine. Importantly for Kim, Beijing’s vocal opposition to sanctions against Russia suggests that two permanent members of the UN Security Council will be in no mood to impose new economic penalties on Pyongyang (as demonstrated by Security Council inaction after Kim’s recent ICBM launch). Meanwhile, the low priority that North Korea policy is accorded in Washington and the hawkish views of the conservative government in Seoul mean there is not much in the way of an incentive on the table for Kim to alter course. 

Indeed, Kim may decide the best use of the standoff in inter-Korean relations is to score domestic political points by besting the new South Korean president in a round of brinkmanship. These trends point towards cascading cycles of provocation and counter-provocation on the Korean Peninsula and the wider region in the near term. Kim might also wager that continued acceleration in strategic weapons capabilities is the best use of the lull in diplomacy with the United States, and would put him in a stronger position for potential negotiations if Donald Trump or another Trump-like figure captures the White House in the 2024 election. There is some burden on the Biden administration to convince Kim otherwise – that not only is the door to dialogue open, but the White House really wants to deal pragmatically with Pyongyang.  

Since the end of the Cold War US officials – Democratic and Republican alike – have focused on a single overriding objective with regard to North Korea: denuclearisation. But short of regime collapse or an unexpected, cataclysmic war, this is the one thing virtually all experts agree will not happen any time soon, if at all. Yet the Biden administration, like its predecessors, stubbornly persists in charging at the windmill of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation”. For a lance, they ride Rocinante (Don Quixote’s faithful steed) to the Security Council and the Treasury Department in search of more sanctions.

No matter how many times they tilt their lances the windmill keeps spinning – now even faster. Discussion among experts and analysts has reached a point of profound fatigue, a kind of collective resignation to the intractable contradiction of political will. Kim Jong Un, like any leader, will not jeopardise his own power, regime stability or national security for the sake of economic development, and a nuclear deterrent is essential to all three. He will not accept our either/or of guns or butter. And yet, his own impossible dream is to rule over a prosperous nation, where the grinding poverty of today would recede into the past and more of the population would finally be able to feed their families. Must we persist in tilting at windmills?

The first, tentative outline of a grand bargain was on the table in 2018. As the pace of weapons tests in the North and joint military exercises in the South ramps increasingly up, it is time to look again at what future might be possible. In other words, we must deal with North Korea as it really is and understand what Kim wants, and where he plans to lead his country during his next decade in power. Perhaps his best option is also ours. 

[See also: The forgotten nuclear threat of North Korea]