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Tens of thousands of North Koreans gather for a rally at Kim Il Sung Square meant to demonstrate their rejection of U.N. sanctions, Pyongyang, Aug. 9, 2017 (AP photo by Jon Chol Jin).

Can Kim Jong Un Bring North Korea In From the Cold?

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

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For nearly a quarter-century, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the North Korean regime's continued survival has baffled observers. When North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il Sung died, North Korea entered a period of famine that lasted three years and killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of North Korean citizens. Yet the regime carried on under his son, Kim Jong Il, and his grandson, Kim Jong Un, currently leads the country, making it the only communist regime to practice hereditary leadership succession—not once, but twice.

So how has the North Korean regime remained in power for more than 60 years under the unbroken leadership of three generations of the Kim family? To evaluate the future prospects of North Korea—be it gradual evolution, sudden transformation or collapse—it is critical to understand how the hereditary leadership system has developed historically, its current state and its future prospects.

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Baby Steps Toward Reform

Upon consolidating power, Kim Jong Un took baby steps toward shoring up the North’s economy. The mid-2015 rollout of Chinese-style economic reforms, combined with reports of tentative discussions with U.S. officials about the possibility of jumpstarting nuclear talks, suggested that significant shifts could be in the cards in Pyongyang. But the launch in 2015 of five short-range missiles from North Korea’s east coast threw icy water on prospects for diplomatic engagement with Kim Jong Un’s regime. The missile launch highlighted the ways in which North Korea’s room for maneuver, especially on the economic front, would continue to be constrained by its inability to improve relations with old foes.

Nevertheless, by 2016 Kim Jong Un showed no indication that sanctions or military pressure had convinced him to abandon Pyongyang’s nuclear program. On the contrary, Kim praised North Korea’s nuclear “deterrent” and reiterated Pyongyang’s determination that it be internationally recognized as a nuclear-armed state. Yet there were already subtle signals that North Korea was prepared to tone down its belligerence and enter into dialogue with the United States not only over its nuclear program, but also over diplomatic normalization and a peace agreement to supersede the 1953 Korean War armistice.

To learn more, read North Korea Party Congress Shows Kim’s Power—and Subtle Outreach to U.S. for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Is Kim Jong Un Driving a Wedge Between the U.S. and South Korea?

Over the subsequent two years, further successful nuclear and missile tests, overseen by Kim, heightened tensions and raised fears of an impending conflict between North Korea and the U.S. Those dissipated following Kim's summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in June 2018. As 2018 drew to a close, U.S. President Donald Trump and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, were sounding remarkably optimistic about the future of the Korean Peninsula, a marked contrast to the hostile rhetoric of potential “fire and fury” from just the year before. Most experts and analysts, however, are skeptical that the current approach will yield the positive outcomes the two leaders predict, noting that no concrete actions toward denuclearization, much less the process by which they might be taken, have been discussed with North Korea. Moreover, the chasm that separates Washington’s and Seoul’s respective approaches to engaging Pyongyang is a reflection of fundamentally different national strategic interests. For South Korea, North Korea is and always will be its first local, domestic, national, regional and global priority. For the United States, North Korea is merely one global priority among many.

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The Failed Summit in Hanoi

The world was once again riveted in February by Kim and Trump’s second meeting in Hanoi. The initial summit between the two leaders in Singapore the previous year created nearly giddy hope for an end to the longstanding hostility between the United States and North Korea, particularly the resolution of the thorniest issue of all: North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program. But a true breakthrough in Vietnam was always unlikely for one pressing reason: Americans persistently fail to understand how Kim sees the world, instead treating him as they want him to be, rather than as he really is. So it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that talks broke down and both sides abruptly walked away from the two-day summit, issuing contradictory explanations of how disagreements over sanctions relief derailed the negotiations.

To learn more, read The Hanoi Summit Failed Because the U.S. Doesn’t Understand How Kim Sees the World for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

You can read all of these articles and many more, including coverage of the recent summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, when you dive into our robust archive, including this special collection on the Kim regime.


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Editor's Note: This article was first published in July 2018 and is regularly updated.