When Kim Jong-un delivered his annual New Year’s address last month, the scene was unrecognisable from his first speech as leader of North Korea six years prior. Gone were the Maoist suit and lapel pin featuring the images of his father, previous ruler Kim Jong-il, and grandfather Kim Il-sung, who founded the country. John Power, Meaghan Tobin specially for the South China Morning Post.
In their place was a suit and tie that would be at home in any office in London or New York. Rather than sheltering behind a podium in an austere auditorium, his voice faltering intermittently as it had before, Kim sat composed in an armchair in a wood-panelled office.
North Korea watchers uttered descriptions such as “statesmanlike” and “Oval Office-esque”. Moon Chung-in, a close adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, told local media the speech was in line with “international standards”.
Kim’s 30-minute address focused heavily on the economy, but he found time to say that North Korea was willing to continue denuclearisation talks with the United States – and to warn that the hermit kingdom would take a “new path” if Washington did not ease its pressure against it.
Far from the image of an erratic dictator with his finger on the nuclear trigger, here was an assured modern leader, in control on the world stage.
“Kim has dramatically changed his image from a medieval, antisocial dictator to a reform-minded, peace-seeking, responsible leader – a statesman with whom the world can do business,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, Korea studies professor at The Fletcher School in Boston, referring to the charm offensive that has been under way since last February’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Spectators were enthralled by a North Korean delegation that included musical acts and the presence of Kim’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong – making her the first of the Kim dynasty to ever visit South Korea.
Kim’s first meeting with US President Donald Trump last June came as part of a succession of meetings with other world leaders. After an initial face-to-face with Chinese President Xi Jinping in March 2018, Kim has since met South Korean President Moon Jae-in three times and Xi another three. He will be thrust into the international spotlight once again when he meets Trump in Vietnam on February 27-28.
The second summit, during which Washington will push for a concrete path to denuclearisation after the vague commitments from the Singapore meeting, is seen as part of a bid by the millennial dictator to bolster credibility at home and abroad while extracting economic incentives and security guarantees.
Once seen as an unpredictable third-generation scion with a penchant for the company of NBA players and a taste for luxury, Kim has insisted upon – and received – a seat at the negotiating table with other world leaders through the unrelenting pursuit of his nuclear weapons programme.
Pyongyang carried out its sixth nuclear test in September 2017, and weeks later test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that it claimed was capable of reaching anywhere on the US mainland.
“Now that he’s finished the nuclear weapons programme, Kim is focusing on the economic development aspect of a dual-track policy,” said Jung Pak, former senior analyst for the US Central Intelligence Agency. “Now he can engage from a position of strength as an equal, an international statesman.”
When Kim sits down with Trump in Vietnam, he will be looking at a potential windfall of benefits in exchange for signs that he is willing to give up or even limit the growth of his nuclear weapons.
Potential bargaining chips, according to analysts, include sanctions relief, economic aid, the establishment of diplomatic relations with the US, and a declaration or peace treaty to officially end the Korean war more than six decades after an armistice put an end to the fighting.
“Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong-un is a good one,” Trump said on Tuesday during his State of the Union address in Washington.
The presidential Blue House in Seoul, which confirmed this week that President Moon was unlikely to travel to Vietnam, earlier listed negotiations towards peace among the summit’s potential outcomes – but not the signing of a peace treaty.
Experts remain sceptical that Kim will ever be moved to give up the bargaining chip that won him a private audience with the US president – something his father and grandfather never managed.
“People are mistaking his summit diplomacy as a sign that he’s willing to let the weapons go,” said Pak. “That’s a misguided assumption. He can chew gum and talk and have summits at the same time.”
BOUGIE FROM BIRTH
Kim has in many ways assumed a more accessible persona than is typically associated with the dynastic, authoritarian rulers of North Korea.
Initially presented as the incarnation of his grandfather, complete with a haircut straight out of a mid-century propaganda poster, Kim has displayed a taste for contemporary pop culture and the flashy excesses of capitalist modernity.
During a thaw in relations between the Koreas last year, Kim claimed to have adjusted his schedule specifically to watch a rare performance by K-pop quintet Red Velvet in Pyongyang. Kim was later quoted saying he had been “deeply moved” by the group, best known for tracks such as Ice Cream Cake, Bad Boy and Peek-a-Boo.
On a late-night walking tour of Singapore before his first meeting with Trump, Kim snapped a selfie with the city state’s foreign and education ministers – and during a visit to the North’s Mount Paektu with Moon, Kim posed for cameras while making a “finger heart” gesture popular in cute-obsessed South Korea.
Choi Jin, head of the Institute of Presidential Leadership think tank in Seoul, said the young ruler took care to seem relatable to ordinary people, “endeavouring to project an image of an agreeable, caring and neighbourly leader”.
Kim’s savvy awareness of pop culture and trends has been cultivated since childhood. He was educated in Switzerland for part of his youth, and former classmates say he was a shy but likeable student with a well-developed sense of humour.
Ermanno Furlanis went to North Korea in 1997 to make pizza for the Kim family. Furlanis recalls being given license to order any product he required to cater to the Kims’ tastes.
“We made a very long order, several thousand dollars, and they didn’t make any noise about the expense. The only thing not from Italy was the flour,” said Furlanis. Even the pizza oven was imported from Italy.
Rather than politics or juche – the North’s official ideology of “true socialism” through self-reliance – his classmates have recalled Kim’s burning passion for basketball. NBA star Dennis Rodman, among the handful of Americans who have spent time with Kim since he assumed power, has referred to the young dictator as his “friend for life”.
While his father’s voice was almost never heard – he gave one public speech during nearly two decades in power – the younger Kim often addresses his people directly. NK News reported in 2015 that Kim was appearing in the mouthpiece Rodong newspaper nearly twice as often as his father and more than six times as often as his grandfather had before him.
Kim’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, meanwhile, has become a fashion icon, her elegant style attracting admiring chatter from Pyongyang to Seoul to Beijing.
His wife’s prominence hinted that Kim was thinking ahead about succession, establishing her as the mother of the next leader, according to Pak, who is currently chair in Korea studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.
“In the past his father and grandfather had multiple wives and there was intense jockeying about who was the heir,” she said. “He knows the regime focuses on bloodlines, and he has Kim Il-sung’s blood in his veins.”
When he took power following his father’s death in 2011, Kim did so as a little-known heir who had been hastily groomed for leadership as his father’s health failed. Kim was not even the first choice; Kim Jong-il had eyed his firstborn son Kim Jong-nam for the leadership until, according to the elder son’s account, he fell out of favour for advocating political reform.
In 2017, Kim Jong-nam was assassinated using toxic nerve agent VX – classified as a weapon of mass destruction – in Malaysia, a hit widely suspected to have been directed by his younger half-brother.
“He’s the third Kim,” Pak said. “Is he going to be the one that gives up nuclear weapons and makes North Korea beholden to outside powers? I doubt it.”
THE MODERN HERMIT KINGDOM
Kim has appointed young technocrats into low- and mid-level leadership positions once dominated by the military old guard, said Michael Madden, the founder of North Korea Leadership Watch. “We’re seeing people in their 20s and 30s in positions where they’re not going to be prominent in public, but they’re important to the connective tissue of the regime,” he said.
Under Kim’s father, advisers were afraid to report bad news, Madden adds, but the current leader is interested in studying mistakes and learning from them.
“It’s a different atmosphere, and that’s how he is going to approach turning things around with North Korea’s economy,” he said.
Despite keeping a tight control on information, executing high-level officials (including uncle-in-law Jang Song-thaek) and maintaining a network of political prison camps, Kim’s leadership has nevertheless coincided with gradual economic development.
In 2016, North Korea’s economy grew by an estimated 3.9 per cent, according to the South’s central Bank of Korea – its best performance in more than a decade, a significant achievement for a country with an estimated GDP per capita little higher than that of Cambodia.
Markets have been more prosperous under Kim Jong-un. Once a rigid command economy, the North contains 436 officially sanctioned private markets that raised about US$56 million for the regime in annual taxes and rents, according to a 2018 joint study by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the North Korea Development Institute.
A separate CSIS study, though limited to 36 respondents, found that all but one of the North Koreans surveyed generated at least 75 per cent of their income through private market activity.
“Kim Jong-un has been less hostile to markets than Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il,” said Lim Jae-cheon, a North Korea studies professor at Korea University in Seoul, explaining that state-owned enterprises and agricultural collective farms have more autonomy under the current regime.
Capital city Pyongyang, home to North Korea’s political elite and once an austere showcase for socialism, has grown gradually more cosmopolitan.
Visitors to the city can now expect to encounter mobile phones, traffic congestion, and even a pizzeria – founded by chefs personally trained by Furlanis, the Kims’ former pizza chef, during his stint in the North.
While many citizens in rural areas struggle for basic necessities, Kim has ordered the construction of extravagant monuments to leisure, from ski resorts to a water park, for the enjoyment of the moneyed elite and foreign tourists. “Right off the bat Kim was out with his wife showcasing all these modern signifiers of a prosperous country,” said the Brookings Institution’s Pak. “He wants to craft that image, that’s his brand.”
Kim, who initiated 13 special economic zones for foreign investment early in his rule, made no fewer than 39 mentions of “economy” or “economic” in his most recent New Year’s address.
After the summit in Singapore, North Korea state media aired a documentary about the trip showcasing the island nation’s “beautiful” and “advanced” cityscape – a notable rhetorical departure for a regime infamous for shutting its people off from the outside world.
“The pressure of economic development is more heavily on Kim Jong-un than on his father Kim Jong-il,” said Lim from Korea University. “As a new leader, it is more urgent for Kim to strengthen political legitimacy through economic success.”
Under current US and United Nations sanctions, the North is prohibited from exporting some of its most lucrative commodities – including coal, iron ore and textiles – and imports of crude oil and petroleum, are tightly capped.
In a recent state media report, Kim was quoted lashing out at “vicious sanctions” standing in the way of the “people’s well-being and development”.
“Kim wants economic development on his own terms,” Pak said. “He wants to be able to control who gets it and he wants to be able to make sure the regime stays intact without outside information about democracy or economic reform infecting the populace. There is only so much he can do while sanctions are in place.”
For North Korea, nuclear weapons have been vital assurances of national security, regime survival, and economic prosperity, wrote Jia Qingguo, associate dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, in US foreign-policy magazine The National Interest. The North will only relinquish its weapons when it can be guaranteed of these things, which the US cannot provide alone, according to Jia.
When Trump and Kim meet in Vietnam, sanctions relief and security assurances in the form of moves to officially end the state of war between Washington and Pyongyang could be on the cards, according to analysts and statements by US officials.
“The second summit would lay down a road map of working-level talks to implement what was agreed in Singapore,” said Yang Moo-jin at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “This would possibly include the exchange of liaison offices in each other’s capital in order to facilitate negotiations. It would also call for a framework of talks to formally bring an end to the Korean war and conclude a peace treaty.”
A parliamentary source close to the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee told This Week in Asia that “the official end of war declaration must be announced first, for the peace treaty to be signed”.
“Thus, the possibility of signing a peace treaty in Vietnam is extremely low. This can’t be given to the North Koreans when they haven’t forfeited their current nuclear arsenal.”
If the North did make concessions, Washington could demand more concrete steps than those secured in Singapore, from an inventory of nuclear weapons and sites to an agreement to allow the entry of international inspectors. But analysts say three decades of failed negotiations between the US and the North do not inspire high expectations.
The US-China trade war could undermine Washington’s bargaining power as growing tensions between the two have prompted Beijing to focus on good relations with its nuclear neighbour, reducing pressure on the North to denuclearise, Jia writes.
“Americans can be a bit idealistic and unintentionally arrogant at the same time,” said The Fletcher School’s Lee. “That kind of positive thinking has achieved great feats for the US as a whole, but at the same time, it shows an abiding tendency to underestimate your adversary, thinking if you’re nicer they’ll listen.”
For the millennial dictator in Pyongyang, according to sceptics, stringing along the US and the international community once again may all just be part of the plan.
“North Korea will walk away scot-free again,” said Lee, predicting that Kim would cap his nuclear achievements by testing an ICBM in space as the Russians did during the cold war.
“It will have become an irreversibly armed state and then be in an even better position to pressure the other states in the region.” ■
Additional reporting by Lee Jeong-ho