North Korea carried out its latest missile test nine months ago and hasn’t detonated a nuclear device in more than a year.
At the same time, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is quietly allowing local capitalist-style private markets to flourish and loosening restrictions on images of the outside world that his regime’s heavily censored state media are allowed to broadcast.
A growing chorus of critics may claim President Trump’s ongoing nuclear negotiations with North Korea — capped by the historic meeting with Mr. Kim in Singapore in June — are going nowhere fast.
But some key officials and analysts in South Korea and in Washington argue that they can see major policy shifts as evidence of how seriously the North Korean leader is committed to changing his nation’s isolationist ways and cutting a deal on his nuclear and missile programs.
Top South Korean analysts and officials privately argue that Mr. Kim’s desire to secure his own legitimacy by improving the lives of people in the North makes him increasingly unlikely to abandon what just a year ago would have seemed like a totally uncharacteristic openness to diplomacy with Washington and Seoul.
Few dispute that major uncertainties still lie ahead. But many stress that the chorus of skeptics of Mr. Trump’s diplomatic gamble have lost sight of how vastly the dynamics with Pyongyang have already changed.
Mr. Kim has “turned around 180 degrees to come out in cooperation [with] South Korea and ultimately the U.S.,” said Haksoon Paik, president of the Sejong Institute, a leading think tank in Seoul. “He appears to be ‘serious’ in his commitment to denuclearization because he appears to be ‘serious’ about carrying out a North Korean strategy of survival and development for the 21st century.”
The optimists got another boost with the outcome of a summit of North and South Korean officials this week.
Mr. Kim met with the South Korean delegation personally and agreed to a date of Sept. 18 for a three-day meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in — the third summit between the two leaders. Officials in South Korea, which has strongly pushed for a rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang, told reporters in Seoul on Thursday that Mr. Kim remained committed to denuclearization before Mr. Trump’s first term in office ends, and had kind words personally for the president.
According to the South Korean diplomats, Mr. Kim said he was frustrated by questions about his willingness to abandon his nuclear weapons and that his faith remains strong in Mr. Trump’s promises to end decades of hostile relations with Pyongyang.
Mr. Trump tweeted his gratitude for the kind words, insisting that the two leaders will “get it done together” despite his recent decision to call off Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned trip to Pyongyang, citing North Korea’s lack of concrete steps since the Singapore summit.
Joseph DeTrani, a former CIA official who served as a special envoy to past talks with North Korea, also offered a positive view of the results of the talks on balance to date.
“Compared to a year ago, my God, look where we are now,” he said in an interview this week. “We’re in a better place, and a good part of this is Kim Jong-un saying to himself, ‘Do I want to live the rest of my life with the threat of the U.S. and South Korea doing something to disrupt my regime? Do I want to be an isolated state with China feeding my people?’
“Mr. Kim is a young guy who studied in Switzerland,” Mr. DeTrani added. “My thinking is maybe he’s serious about trying to advance North Korea economically and getting out of the isolation that the country’s been in for so long.”
Questions of timing
While Mr. Trump touts his personal relationship with Mr. Kim and the lack of provocative moves by Pyongyang in recent months, his national security team remains wary, with the North yet to even produce an inventory of its nuclear weapons and facilities.
“We’re not willing to wait for too long,” Nikki Haley, ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters last month. She was echoing comments by National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, who complained that Pyongyang has “not taken effective steps” since broadly agreeing to the goal of denuclearization in June.
With recent satellite photos showing North Korean weapons factories continuing to operate, reportedly producing fissile materials to make nuclear weapons, skeptics argue that the nuclear talks are going nowhere despite Mr. Trump’s expansive claims.
“Maybe they were never really bolted on in the first place, but in recent weeks it looks very clear that the wheels have come off whatever was agreed to or understood between [Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump] in Singapore,” said Christopher R. Hill, a former assistant secretary of state and ambassador to South Korea with years of experience negotiating with Pyongyang.
Now with the University of Denver, Mr. Hill argued Thursday in an article for Foreign Affairs that the Trump administration’s best next move would be to “re-create its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign,” including “unprecedented U.N. sanctions” against Pyongyang, in order to coerce the Kim regime to take some measurable steps toward denuclearizing.
Mr. Kim’s stated hopes for sweeping reforms of the North’s primitive and largely isolated economy are seen as one often-overlooked variable driving the nuclear talks. The tightly controlled state media are now showing North Koreans images of the outside world — and the wealth and the consumer goods largely unknown in North Korea.
During the June summit with Mr. Trump, North Korean state media aired a lengthy documentary on Mr. Kim’s trip that focused heavily on Singapore and the prosperity evident on the streets of the small city-state. Mr. Kim was shown strolling by swimmers on the Marina Bay Sands rooftop pool and the lush indoor gardens of Sentosa Island before his meeting with Mr. Trump.
The images were broadcast as Mr. Kim pushes hard for an economic overhaul that includes a greater scope for local markets and higher economic growth. He reportedly toured more than two dozen farms and factories across North Korea from June to late August — a marathon of visits during which state media said lower-tier government officials were pressed harder for economic development.
A recent analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies said local markets — first allowed by Pyongyang in 2002 during the reign of Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il — are the “single most significant socioeconomic development to occur in North Korea over the last 20 years.”
While the North Korean economy “is still theoretically run under a centrally controlled and state-planned system,” there are at least 436 officially sanctioned markets “tacitly permitted to operate so long as vendors pay ‘taxes’ or ‘rents’ to the state,” the CSIS survey said.
Mr. DeTrani said Mr. Kim’s newfound enthusiasm for markets is “an indicator that he realizes the state cannot take care of its people and that the public distribution system is broken.”
“He’s basically saying, ‘Move toward the market system,’” Mr. DeTrani said, comparable to Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s declaration during the late 1970s at the onset of China’s move toward capitalism that “markets are good.”
Regional analysts predict that the North Korean leader will play hardball in the negotiations and that his willingness to talk is at least partly driven by the confidence that the Pyongyang regime already has enough nuclear weapons to guarantee its survival and deter an attack from Washington and its allies.
Mr. Paik said Mr. Kim made his “180-degree” turnaround on talks with the U.S. and South Korea only after he declared on the first day of 2018 that his regime had achieved the “completion” of a “national nuclear force.”
What came six months later in Singapore, said Mr. Paik, was a joint statement in which Mr. Kim made it clear that “he was committed to a ‘complete denuclearization’ of the Korean Peninsula,” but only in exchange for U.S. “security assurances” and a peace settlement with South Korea.
“Kim wanted to bring the U.S. into its strategic design of survival,” said Mr. Paik. “This demand of ‘security guarantees’ was a very unusual demand from North Korea, which reflects Kim’s candor and seriousness out of pragmatism to make a deal with the U.S. more unambiguous and concrete.”
The catch, he said, is that Mr. Kim views the future of negotiations as “a give-and-take deal … characterized by step-by-step and simultaneous action on both sides.”
“One side cannot be blamed alone for the current ‘stalled’ situation in negotiation,” Mr. Paik added. “I am afraid Kim is not likely to move forward without the U.S. agreeing to declaring the end of the Korean War.”
The U.S. has so far balked at such a declaration before North Korea makes a serious move toward denuclearization, such as declaring the size of its weapons stocks and the locations of all its nuclear facilities.