The North Korean leader has scored a huge victory with his summit with Donald Trump, scheduled for June 12. He will be able to consolidate his authority and engage in a measured opening of the country’s economy without getting rid of either his nuclear weapons or his barbaric governance.*
On the evening of Oct. 23, 2000, just a few hours after her arrival in Pyongyang, Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, met directly with Kim Jong Il, then leader of the North Korean regime, for the first time. After several lively toasts, as she recounts in her memoirs, the dictator talked a little about movies, then bragged about owning three computers. He even asked for the State Department’s web address. But above all, the North Korean dictator insisted on quickly organizing a historic summit with the American president. To obtain this meeting, he was ready to promise everything — ending his ballistic missile exports or even his military nuclear programs.
Back at the White House, the possibility of a meeting was meticulously examined. “President Clinton himself was more than willing to make the trip,” says Albright.** South Korean allies pressed for a summit. But resistance remained strong in Washington, where experts pointed out the multiple promises broken by the Kims and the formidable legitimacy that such a handshake would offer to the North Korean dictatorship. Then the precipitous events in the Middle East finally pushed Clinton to give up on an expedition to Pyongyang.
A Tremendous Symbol
Eighteen years later, Trump had none of the same reservations, and agreed, without consulting his advisers, to a meeting on Tuesday, June 12, in Singapore, with Kim Jong Un, who has ruled the communist dynasty since his father’s death in December 2011. Finally. After decades of an endless cycle of provocations and outstretched hands, the paralyzed, crumbling little country, frozen in the Cold War, will have its historic summit with the greatest power in the world.
At 34 years old, the dictator will obtain the tremendous symbolic victory that his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and then his father, could never accomplish. The result of the meeting is even less important, because the cliches surrounding the handshake and the smiles will be indelible. Insulted just six months ago by Trump, threatened with pre-emptive American military strikes and ridiculed by many Western media and comedy outlets, the young leader is poised for tremendous revenge, which will permit him to consolidate his aura and his power on the domestic front. His propaganda machine will go into overdrive by hyping these exchanges between two nuclear powers talking as equals.
His plan will have finally gone smoothly. If the threats of American strikes, agitated in Washington by supporters of the “bloody nose” strategy, certainly worried Pyongyang at the end of 2017, they will have only served to precipitate the engagement of the scenario written a long time ago by Kim Jong Un.
The Survival of His Dynasty
After an acceleration of nuclear and ballistic tests, and after the launch of its intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-15 — a missile which could have reached American soil — the regime announced in November that it now held the nuclear deterrent force written into its 2012 constitution. The leader now has in hand what he has always perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the assurance of his dynasty’s survival, and he can now concentrate on his other objectives.
In Singapore, the young leader will especially test Trump’s seriousness, whose strategy remains confusing. When he said yes to the summit, the U.S. president promised the utmost firmness, and called for a complete, immediate, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of Pyongyang’s arsenal. In recent days, he seems to have considerably lowered his expectations. Kim Jong Un, who will never abandon the atomic bombs which are embedded into the DNA of his regime, will thus ensure that the White House will have to content itself with some symbolic announcements and a vague, unverifiable, slow-moving denuclearization plan in exchange for a slow normalization of relations between the two nations.
Back in Pyongyang, Kim will be able to devote himself to the development of his nation, battered by international sanctions and a backward economic system. His charm offensive at the Olympic Games and his outstretched hand to South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have already broken the momentum of pressure that the United States put into place last year. Beijing and Seoul will no longer support an American strategy of suffocation and will gradually resume their economic partnerships, much to the chagrin of a Japan still partial to a policy of firmness. Already, analysts have noted a resumption of trade on the border between China and North Korea.
The Reunification Trap
If Kim Jong Un has promised to finally bring his people growth, he will not follow the pathways used by other communist dictatorships like China or Vietnam, as Trump seems to hope. The clan structure of his power, built from terror using purges around his family and a faithful core, would not survive a very rapid opening up. He cannot suddenly abandon the narrative of the citadel besieged by imperialists but protected by nuclear fire, which cemented the population’s support for his lineage. He would lose all legitimacy in the face of South Korea, which has already won the battle for economic development in the peninsula. How could he continue to justify the very existence of his dynasty, which he hopes to maintain for decades? He knows that a normalization leading to reunification would be fatal.
*Editor’s note: Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump met in Singapore on June 12. This article was written shortly before the summit.
**Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quoted remark could not be independently verified.