Tears trickle down the cheeks of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as he gazes out toward the horizon while standing on a coastline. The scene is from a documentary for party officials that was released in April. A narrator explains that Kim is “distraught over his inability to radically overhaul the economy to make the reclusive country a vibrant power,” according to a report by The Asahi Shimbun , which got the information from a North Korean defector.
Kim’s show of weakness would shock North Koreans, who are told to worship the Kim family as gods. The defector believes that the documentary sends a message to party officials that they have no option but to follow Kim’s lead as North Korea prepares to stop nuclear testing and focus on economic development. The documentary may also be aimed at getting officials to accept the outcome of the Singapore summit talks between himself and President Donald Trump.
Kim’s tears are part of an ongoing attempt by his regime to sell denuclearization and peace to North Koreans. Kim will likely agree to abandon his nuclear weapons because they are currently threatening, and not ensuring, the survival of his regime.
Regime survivability comes first and foremost for the authoritarian communist regimes of North Korea and China. For instance, Deng Xiaoping abandoned Mao Zedong’s policies in order to transform China and maintain power. Deng saw the danger in Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution and collectivization policies and so led a partial liberalization of the Chinese economy to rescue the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy. Years later, Deng also ordered the merciless massacre of student protesters at Tiananmen Square because he felt that the party’s survival was at stake.
In North Korea, the Kim family maintained a cult of personality, carried out ruthless purges, and pursued nuclear weapons to stay in power. To consolidate his position, Kim executed his pro-Beijing uncle and ordered the successful assassination of his half-brother, who was under Chinese protection. He also doubled down on North Korea’s nuclear program after taking control in 2013. Kim did this by launching several intercontinental ballistic missiles and holding six nuclear tests. By the second half of 2017, North Korea had launched a missile capable of hitting “everywhere in the world basically,” according to Defense Secretary James Mattis. The regime also claimed to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb that could be mounted on a missile.
However, Kim’s nuclear weapons quickly became a double-edged sword. The United Nations imposed the toughest ever sanctions on North Korea in September 2017, while Trump announced a “maximum pressure” campaign involving both economic and military measures. Since Trump met with Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in April 2017, the United States has prepared for the worst. America has kept three aircraft carrier groups operating in the Pacific Ocean; practiced evacuation drills in South Korea , and had airborne troops simulate a foreign invasion . Furthermore, the United States also had reserve troops practice setting up mobilization centers for overseas deployment and involved advanced jet fighters in U.S.-South Korea military drills. Trump and his top administration officials have discussed military options for North Korea and maintained that all options are on the table. Meanwhile, China ordered mainland banks to cease doing business with North Korea, virtually shut down trade along the China-North Korean border. Moreover, China also cut energy imports and exports to North Korea beyond the requirements of U.S. sanctions. As a result of all this, experts now estimate that North Korea could run out of hard currency by late 2018 or 2019 as it relies on its foreign reserves to subsidize its deficit with China. Therefore, far from guaranteeing regime survival, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are fast exhausting the country’s finances and bringing it closer to regime-ending war with America.
Unlike his grandfather, Kim cannot expect help from China in North Korea’s latest confrontation with America. Relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) are not as close as “lips and teeth” as Mao described, but instead have wavered in the decades after the Korean War. After Xi Jinping took office in 2012, PRC-DPRK relations entered a state of deep freeze due to a life-and-death factional struggle in the Chinese government between Xi’s camp and the old Jiang Zemin faction. The Jiang faction was friendly to the Kim family and even supported North Korea’s nuclear program. However, during Xi’s first term, he never visited North Korea. He also refused to attend a Beijing performance starring Kim’s favorite North Korean girl band, instead inviting then South Korean president Park Geun-hye, but not Kim, to his grand military parade in 2015. In response, Kim tested ballistic missiles and nuclear devices during sensitive moments for Xi, such as firing three missiles in September 2016 when world leaders gathered in Hangzhou for the G-20 summit, and detonating a hydrogen bomb hours before Xi addressed leaders of BRICS countries at a summit in Xiamen in September 2017.