Can The New Kim Jong-un Be Trusted?

After years of isolationism, accelerated nuclear development, and icy military tensions with the south, Kim Jong-un appears to have warmed to the outside world.

On Friday 27 April, he made history by being the first North Korean leader to set foot in South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953. He was all smiles as he crossed the border to shake hands with Moon Jae-in, and then, in an apparently impromptu move, invited his counterpart to shake hands in North Korea too.

And the outcome of the summit – a mutually signed declaration between the two countries – was overwhelmingly positive. It committed to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, the removal of propaganda broadcasts in the demilitarised zone between the countries; arms reduction, arranging four-way talks including the US and China aimed at converting the post-Korean War armistice into a peace treaty, and even connecting and modernising transportation links across the border.

And now, a poll produced by the Middle East Broadcasting Center on Tuesday 1 May found that Kim Jong-un has a 78% approval rating – in South Korea.

But following a year of rapid deterioration in relations between himself and almost all of the rest the outside world – can this new diplomatic, demilitarised Kim Jong-un really be trusted?

The statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang. Photo by J.A. de Roo

The Kim Dynasty

Kim Jong-un is the third leader in the Mount Paektu Bloodline: the Kim Dynasty of North Korea. It was established by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, when the peninsula was split as a result of the withdrawal of Japanese control after the empire’s demise in the second world war. Since then, the country has come to be defined by its official state ideology: ‘Juche’. Commonly and loosely defined as ‘self-reliance’, the philosophy has guided government policies over the last seven decades towards a guarded national economy, an ardent self-defence programme and highly isolated national independence.

But Kim Jong-un took those policies to new levels. And there was a reason for that. In the months and years leading up to his father’s death in December 2011, there was uncertainty in the upper echelons of the Workers’ Party over who would succeed him. His elder half brother, Kim Jong-nam, had been favourite to succeed the leadership, but he was assassinated in 2017 after falling out of favour with the Party. Kim Jong-un was eventually selected supposedly for having characteristics very similar to his father.

Kim Jong-un became became leader when he was just 27 (although his age varies in different international records). The consensus was that his youth and inexperience left him vulnerable to political challenges, both internally and externally. He had to act decisively to cement his hold on power.

And he did it with rockets. Kim Jong-un – or ‘Rocket Man’, as President Trump labelled him – has conducted over 80 ballistic missile launches during his tenure. By comparison, his father and grandfather combined conducted just 27.

And that has made the world, including his Chinese allies, tetchy. News bulletins became fraught with stories about how the range capabilities of each new rocket meant his potential firing line was etching closer and closer to American territories.

The world became paranoid. Americans were convinced that Guam – their small Pacific island that also serves as a strategic military outpost – might be first on the hit list. And then, on a Hawaiian Saturday morning in January 2018, paranoia became raw panic as a text message alert was mistakenly sent warning inhabitants that a ballistic missile was inbound. The world seemed to be on the verge of nuclear annihilation.

So, is the man at the heart of all that someone we can now trust?

A mural depicting the North-Korean leader. Photo by Loco Steve

The supreme appeaser

Well, maybe. The general consensus regarding Kim Jong-un’s motivation behind these missile tests falls too easily onto regime paranoia and chauvinistic international antagonism. He is a product, and indeed a conduit, of the separationist ‘Juche’ ideology that manifests itself in strong policies of self-defence.

But Dr Euan Graham, International Security Program director at the Lowy Institute, told that the nuclear program is a way of asserting his power internally, not externally.

“Once Kim took over he tied himself to his missile and nuclear program as a form of domestic legitimacy,” he said.

What’s more, while sanctions from the UN, EU, US and other countries have previously had a mixed effect, the latest rounds announced in September 2017 could cripple North Korea’s economy if enforced. Including a ban on exports of textiles, the country’s second-largest industry, the new sanctions could cost the regime up to $800million per year.

It is perhaps with this in mind that, having established his domestic dominance through his fast-tracked nuclear programme, Kim Jong-un has turned to face the outside world with a smile and a handshake.

Positive relations with UN and US-backed South Korea could, in time, bring economic prosperity to the country, or at least stem the flow of lost income.

Kim Jong-un’s apparent U-turn, then, seems to be a calculated, rational decision by a man who is otherwise seen as one of the most irrational and unpredictable leaders on the planet. And now, almost inconceivably, a friendly handshake with Donald Trump seems to be the more likely outcome than all-out nuclear war.

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