According to several of South Korea’s foremost experts, Kim’s regime is in more trouble than we realise and “will not survive” unless he rejuvenates North Korea’s economy.
The only realistic way to do that is through a peace deal.
Kim is supposed to meet with US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12, but on Tuesday North Korea threatened to walk away from the summit, citing its fury over joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea, along with America’s demands that it “unilaterally” abandon its nuclear ambitions.
North Korea also ditched a fresh round of talks that were scheduled to take place with the South this week.
“If the US is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue,” the regime said.
But even if Kim wants to snub the Singapore summit, he desperately needs to show up.
His own survival depends on it.
Professor Kim Dong-yup, director of research at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, has personal experience dealing with North Korea’s negotiating tactics, having taken part in previous military talks between the North and South.
He told news.com.au Kim’s grip on power was at stake.
“He has to choose between nuclear weapons and the survival of the regime. He has to shift his focus from security to the economy, otherwise the North Korean regime will not survive,” Prof Kim said.
In 2013, Kim Jong-un promised to pursue a “two track” path of development for North Korea, focusing on nuclear weapons and the economy.
He has enjoyed success with the former, but under the heavy weight of sanctions from the US and United Nations, North Korea’s already troubled economy has suffered.
Prof Kim said the country’s people, brutally oppressed by the regime for so long, are becoming more aware of the outside world and harder to control, so are less likely to tolerate continued economic malaise.
“Given the context, that the North Korean people have access to five million mobile phones and numerous markets where they can access information, the regime simply cannot be sustained through control and oppression,” he said.
“The biggest thing Kim Jong-un is fearful of is not the pressure from the outside world it is his people. So he has made the strategic decision that by keeping nuclear weapons, he will not make his people happy and will not ensure his regime’s survival.
Lee Ho-ryung, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses, has been studying North Korea for 15 years. She told news.com.au that Kim’s abrupt decision to start negotiating was indeed motivated by the country’s struggling economy.
“The economic situation has got worse and worse. Without resolving this issue, his regime can no longer survive. That is why he has to come to the table,” Ms Lee said.
“Under Kim Jong-un’s regime, unlike those of his father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung, people have greater access to information and have experienced capitalism a lot. So if Kim Jong-un fails to address the economy, it will pose a grave threat to his regime.”
Ms Lee envisioned a deal in which North Korea would agree to scrap its nuclear weapons, and in return the US would commit to lifting the economic sanctions.
“That means the flowing of dollars into North Korea. These dollars will be used for the revitalisation of the economy.”
On Thursday, Mr Trump implied he was willing to offer that sort of deal.
“(Kim) will get protections that are very strong. The best thing he could do is make a deal,” Mr Trump said.
According to Kim Yeoul-su, chief of the Security Strategy Office at the Korea Research Institute for Military Affairs, “a sense of terror” has driven Mr Kim to the table and will continue to motivate him.
“Due to the economic sanctions imposed by the US and also the UN Security Council, North Korea has suffered greatly. Its GDP will shrink by 5 per cent this year,” Kim Yeoul-su said.
Furthermore, as part of the UN’s push to curtail Kim’s nuclear program, many North Korean businesses operating in China have been forced to withdraw from the country — and vice versa — adding to the economic pain.
But even if the economy is Kim’s primary motivation, it is not the only one.
“There is also the sense of terror that comes from the possible military option,” Kim Yeoul-su added. He said Donald Trump’s very public threats, such as his infamous “fire and fury” remark, were credible and had to be taken seriously.
And if the summit goes badly, there is a real risk Mr Trump will pull the trigger.
“The worst case scenario might be if someone walks out of the negotiations. We would have no available diplomatic options,” Kim Yeoul-su said. “It means we would have to rely on top-end sanctions — and military options. We have to be prepared for that.”
He stressed he was speaking “very hypothetically” and Mr Trump would need to take a “very cautious approach” to any military action.
“There are two possible options. One is a surgical strike. The second is all out war,” he said.
If war did break out, North Korea would be ready to fight back — but not for long.
“Unlike other countries, North Korea has been preparing for a possible war for a long time. They have done all the possible preparation,” he said.
“They can stage a war for a certain amount of time. But if it is prolonged, there is a higher chance of North Korea losing. In that sense, North Korea would want to finish the war quickly.”
Why couldn’t North Korea sustain its war effort for an extended period? Because you need money to fight wars, and its economy is shot.
It all comes down to that. Whether Kim is worried about the external threat of the United States or the internal threat of his own people, he needs to strengthen his economy to survive, and he cannot do that without a deal.
So when North Korea threatens to walk away from the table, there’s a fair chance it is just empty bluster.
• Sam Clench travelled to South Korea as a guest of the Korean Culture and Information Service.