For Kim, his regime 'ain't broke' — so why fix it?

For Kim, his regime 'ain't broke' — so why fix it?
© Getty Images

The agreement that President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMueller report findings could be a 'good day' for Trump, Dem senator says Trump officials heading to China for trade talks next week Showdown looms over Mueller report MORE is offering Kim Jong Un carries uncertain rewards and considerable risk for Kim. Trump’s offer is based on the false assumption that Kim wants a prosperous country from which he and the people of North Korea can benefit.

A more accurate starting point is that Kim cares only about his survival and that of the Kim family dynasty. Add to this the dysfunctionality of Washington and the prospect of a hard-left Trump successor, Kim has every incentive not to sign any agreement that offers growth and prosperity in return for denuclearization and joining the world community. The status quo is, unfortunately, Kim’s best option.

ADVERTISEMENT

Under Trump’s proposals, Kim will give up his nuclear arsenal and open his hermit kingdom to the world economy and foreign investment. A peace treaty will be signed that ends the Korean War, and the Korean Peninsula will divide into two separate countries that would supposedly live in peace.

According to Trump’s “carrot” scenario, foreign direct investment will flow into North Korea and make it prosperous. 

The symbolism of the choice of Vietnam as the summit site is palpable. Trump is signaling to Kim that the Hermit Kingdom can become a modern nation like Vietnam and not give up his dictatorship. The Trump sales pitch is that it is all “win-win.”  

Kim and his inner circle can become rich and not depend on illicit sales of weapons and drugs. Kim’s popularity will soar as incomes rise above subsistence. With Kim’s rising popularity, Kim can ease off repression.

The Trump-Kim Hanoi summit has ended without agreement, but Trump plans to continue the dialogue. But is there any realistic basis for such a deal? 

The Kim dynasty will soon be, at the age of almost 70, the world’s longest enduring communist command system. The Kims nominally pay fealty to communist ideology, but they combine it with a peculiar deity myth in which the Kim family is the guardian of the nation and its people.

Other than that, the Kim dynasty is a typical police state: A ruling elite manages the system and a state police keep the people under tight control. The Kims keep the elite and police loyal through payoffs and threats to their lives.

Those below the elite level understand that the Kims and the elites control their life chances. To buck the regime means no education, travel or decent jobs for them and their children. To challenge the regime means death or the Gulag. 

The Kim’s police state controls the people, and a strong military, which can wreak havoc on nearby Seoul, or, with a nuclear capability, the globe, keeps the outside world in check.

Although the economy produces little, a disproportionate share goes to the military, cyber and other means of modern warfare. Hybrid warfare does not require a growing economy. North Korea boasts some of the most potent cyber warriors. Cyber is a great equalizer.

It does not take much to keep the Kim dynasty working. The Kim regime can earn enough to pay its elites and itself through drug and weapons sales and other nefarious activities, with or without sanctions. 

In a word, Kim has a stable dictatorship that shows few signs of breaking — one that he can likely pass on to the next in line for dynastic rule. Why should he change it?

Let’s assume Kim were to accept denuclearization, a formal peace treaty and the opening of North Korea to the West. Would the Hermit Kingdom repeat the Vietnamese experience? If so, would the regime itself survive the influx of foreign investors, engineers, technical experts and foreign ideas that contradict the deity myth?

The opening to the outside world would bring in floods of South Koreans with their rapidly expanding popular culture. And what would happen when people from the North first see the hustle and bustle and skyscrapers of Seoul?

Could the Kim dynasty put in place a means of contract enforcement and property rights that would be necessary to satisfy outsiders? Would the expected flow of foreign investment turn into a trickle?

In any case, Kim would be stepping into the unknown with a high probability of failure, leaving behind the security of a governance system that has survived almost three quarters of a century.

For Kim to give up nuclear weapons means placing himself at the mercy of his enemies — South Korea and the United States — in return for unreliable assurances.

As Kim and Trump sat together in closed-door sessions, the U.S. House was interrogating Trump’s former lawyer in a process designed to lead to impeachment or to a much-weakened presidency. Should Kim simply wait it out for a President Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersHere's what the Dem candidates for president said about the Mueller report Booker takes early lead in 2020 endorsements Harris wants Barr to testify on Mueller report as 2020 Dems call for its release MORE rather than dealing with a Trump hamstrung by his foes?

Kim surely knows that Ukraine surrendered its nuclear arsenal (then the world’s third-largest) in return for international assurances that were conveniently forgotten.

Kim also knows the fate of former Libyan Prime Minister Muammar Gadhafi, who gave up his nuclear ambitions and was bombed by the forces that welcomed his action before being killed by his own people.

ADVERTISEMENT

In Kim’s case, there is another factor that speaks for the status quo. According to reports, he has executed more than 300 victims, including two close family members. This means there are hundreds of families bent on revenge in a more liberalized regime that does not monitor every movement. There is a high likelihood that one of them would exact revenge on Kim in a liberalized North Korea.

Kim may enjoy palling around with the leader of the free world. He may enjoy basking in the limelight of the world press, but he has no reason to accept the proposals being floated before his nose.

World diplomacy has a problem for which there is no solution, but it must rest on the understanding that Kim could care less about North Korea and its people. He is only interested in his survival and that of the Kim dynasty.

Paul R. Gregory is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.