Weeks before the historic inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom, I visited North Korea (April 3–7) as part of a delegation of Asian scholars, led by former Indonesian diplomat Dino Djalal. During my stay, we met and exchanged views with senior officials, including Kim Yong Dae, vice-president of the Presidium of Supreme People's Assembly, and Ri Gil Song, vice minister for Foreign Affairs, and a coterie of other diplomats and bureaucrats in charge of trade, investments and external relations.
Unwilling to rely on any single source to decipher North Korea, our delegation met diplomats from foreign countries posted to North Korea, who also shared their points of view on developments in the country. Days before and after the trip, I also had the chance to talk to senior officials from China and South Korea.
The purpose of the trip was simple: We wanted to discover why the Hermit Kingdom, in a remarkable twist of events, has returned to the negotiating table. After careful examination of (known and knowable) facts, as well as deliberation with countless officials and experts within and outside North Korea, what became clear to me is that the regime is open to negotiation simultaneously out of a sense of strength as well as weakness.
The Panmunjom Summit
The late-April summit between North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in has, quite understandably, triggered euphoric expectations of a permanent peace regime in the peninsula. The prominent South Korean academic and presidential adviser Chung-in Moon, who attended the summit, has gone so far as claiming, “a comprehensive peace deal including real denuclearization by North Korea is achievable in a couple of years, if not in the months ahead.”
To be fair, the so-called Panmunjom Declaration, which emanated from the meeting between South Korean president Moon Jae-in and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, is unprecedented in its precision and ambition. For the first time in history, North Korea not only agreed to place the nuclear issue at the heart of its summit with its southern neighbor, but it also agreed to openly discuss the prospect of full denuclearization on the peninsula. In another major break from the past, North Korea’s official mouthpiece, Rodong Sinmun, reported the supreme leader’s commitment to denuclearization.
This is a potentially huge development, considering the tendency for North Korea to say completely different things at home as opposed to abroad as well as the profound prestige the domestic elite and the broader masses attach to their possession of nuclear weapons. Crucially, the two sides arrived, in a written agreement, at a specific timetable for upcoming high-level civil and military meetings, the resumption of reunion events among separated families (August 15), and visit of the South Korean president to Pyongyang (fall of 2018). Not to mention, the highly anticipated meeting between Kim and President Donald Trump later this month.
To express its good will, North Korea also promised to close down its nuclear test site in Punggye-ri this month, even opening it up for verification via inspection by foreign experts and observers, including those from America. Moreover, the North Korean leader displayed an uncanny sense of pragmatism by not insisting on the severance or downgrade of the U.S.-South Korea alliance as a precondition for denuclearization. Yet, none of these truly explain why North Korea has returned to the negotiating table. Why the change of heart? How did Kim Jong-un go from threatening America with nuclear war to proposing complete denuclearization within a span of months? Is he for real?
A New Opening
The strength stems from their virtual mastery of both the nuclear enrichment cycle as well as weapons delivery system. Although they are yet to perfect the “re-entry” technology, which allows a nuclear power to precisely target faraway enemies with intercontinental ballistic missiles, North Korea is now a de facto member of the exclusive club of nuclear powers.
As one of their senior officials told me, the country is now negotiating as a “full-fledged strategic state.” In the regime’s view, it can now deal with major players on a symmetrical basis. For sure, the reported collapse of the Mount Mantap at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in the country’s northwest, after the sixth nuclear blast in the area last year, limits the ability of the regime to improve and exhibit its nuclear prowess.
Nonetheless, the fact is that North Korea has already developed a nuclear deterrence, augmented by its ever-improving cache of ballistic missiles. Thus, it’s quite reductionist, if not totally erroneous, to suggest that Kim has put forward the prospect of denuclearization, simply because the regime can’t test its nuclear weapons with similar ease as the past.
Yet, what’s often missed in the analyses of North Korea’s motivations is the country’s vision of building a “strong socialist state,” one that isn’t only militarily powerful, but also economically viable. In fact, as the North Korean supreme leader stated in his New Year’s speech, he is willing to sacrifice nuclear weapons for economic development.
The sanctions have not been tough enough to erode the foundations of the regime, as in the case of Apartheid South Africa. Nor have they been severe enough to completely alter the regime’s strategic calculus, as happened in Libya in mid-2000s. Yet, they have been severe enough to encourage North Korea to return to the negotiating table, similar to the case of Iran after the imposition of robust sanctions against the Middle Eastern state in 2012.
Unlike the Soviet Union, revisionist and ambitious powers today are more aware of the fact that regime stability and national power can’t rely on military prowess alone. They are also cognizant of how international isolation allows rivals to leap ahead in terms of overall national development.
For instance, Tehran is aware of the fact that sanctions have not only weakened its hand within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), thanks to oil and financial embargoes, but have also allowed rivals such as Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey to widen their technological edge over Iran. It was precisely within this context of the fear-of-being-left-behind that pragmatists within Iran were able to convince the top leadership to contemplate a nuclear compromise.
The North Korean elite (including the Swiss-educated supreme leader) are acutely aware of the fact that it is well behind its neighbors, especially its cousins across the 38th Parallel, in overall level of development. This undeniable fact must have been a great source of humiliation, envy and insecurity for Pyongyang’s leadership, notwithstanding its propaganda bombast and militaristic posturing.
Based on discussions with informed foreign officials, North Korea’s access to fuel, food and basic capital goods has been dramatically reduced in the past year. Major trading partners have severely downgraded or completely cut off trade and investment ties. Even China has begun to tighten the noose, leaving Pyongyang at the mercy of its giant benefactor. As a result, Kim Jong-un has found it increasingly impossible to reform and modernize the country.
An Alternative Future
Having developed a deterrence capability to ensure regime survival, however, the young North Korean leader is now interested in pushing ahead with his plans of modernizing and reforming a long-isolated nation, which has been left behind by its neighbors, most especially the enterprising cousins to the south of the 38th Parallel.
The country is like no other frontier market, thanks to its highly educated population, extremely cheap labor, relatively decent basic infrastructure, proximity to three major global economies (China, Japan and South Korea), and highly disciplined and internally coherent state apparatus.
North Korea possesses the precise of combination of human, bureaucratic and resource capital, which allowed communist nations such as China and Vietnam to join the ranks of the world’s fastest growing economies in recent decades.
During my visit to North Korea, we dropped by a modern, automated shoe-making factory, powered by an army of solar panels, state-of-the-art monitoring and accommodation facilities, and well-trained artisans and designers that flaunted indigenously crafted products.
Then there were the urbane and articulate professors at Kim Il-sung University, the country’s most prestigious educational institution, discussing their country’s economic policies and hopes of reengagement with the world.
What struck me the most during the visit was the capital city, Pyongyang, which is arguably the cleanest, most meticulously designed and emptiest urban center anywhere in the world. Atop the Juche Tower, the highest structure in the country, one could see the impeccably clean Taedong River, embellished by perfectly arranged rows of blossoming trees.
On one side of the city, one sees buildings carefully painted across the color spectrum, morphing into a rainbow far into the horizon. At the heart of Pyongyang is the pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel, which dominates the city’s skyline, flashier and more surreal than even the glitziest skyscrapers one sees in the Persian Gulf Sheikhdoms.
In the Ryomyong New Town, a new posh quarter in the city, there are columns of space ship looking skyscrapers, shopping centers, amusement parks, and a shiny, newly minted asphalted boulevard. Throughout our stay in the city, we dropped by several restaurants, where the menu was as varied as it was rich.