Will 2019 be the year North Korea sheds its rogue state status?
As the New Year dawned, North Korea returned to international headlines once again. Unlike in years past, the reason was not a new missile test or a threat against one of its neighbors. Rather, it was its enigmatic leader, Kim Jong Un, who delivered a televised address, sent a letter to US President Donald Trump and visited China, that grabbed the international community’s attention — and not necessarily in a worrisome way.
While the contents of the letter to Trump are unknown, his annual New Year’s address suggests that, as was the case last year, North Korea seems poised to grab media headlines this year. Whether its apparent — slow — rapprochement with the international community in general and with the US in particular continues or it reverses course and maintains its international pariah and rogue regime status remains to be seen.
The year 2018 was arguably a turning point in North Korean history and certainly in how it is perceived on the international stage. Famously dubbed as one of the three nations that comprised the “axis of evil” by then-US President George W. Bush in 2002, in many ways the East Asian nation seems like a relic of the past. Its centrally commanded economy is one of the least open in the world and its totalitarian political system demands absolute loyalty to the “Dear Leader,” Kim.
This kind of regime is likely to become rarer still in 2019. Its economic stagnation and the hardships that large segments of its population have endured for years is especially stark when it is compared to its neighbor to the south, South Korea. The two countries have gone in two very different directions since the Korean Peninsula was divided after the Second World War.
The prosperity and technological advancement of the South and the economic struggles of the North are often presented as further proof of a debate that was settled long ago: That countries that were part of the communist “world” did not fare nearly as well as those who were in the US’ camp during the Cold War. Nevertheless, 2018 could have been a turning point for North Korea.
Some have argued that, like other former communist bloc countries, North Korea might have finally realized the folly of being one of the very few remaining centrally planned economies. Perhaps its leadership — essentially Kim — might have concluded that flouting the rules of the international community, especially those related to the development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, was foolhardy.
There is hope for optimism that this shift in 2018 was not an aberration or a publicity stunt by Kim, but rather a realization that the status quo was untenable.
North Korea might have finally realized the folly of being one of the very few remaining centrally planned economies.
Of course, much of the focus centered on the historic meeting between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore in June. The friendly meeting and seemingly continuing warm relations between the two since was almost unthinkable just a few months earlier, when the two leaders had traded jabs and publicly threatened each other. Yet the summit was welcomed by many observers for, if nothing else, cooling the heated rhetoric that had prevailed in the early part of the year. And, while meetings involving other senior officials have been delayed, there is once again renewed hope for another summit.
Perhaps just as dramatic was the meeting between Kim and the South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang in September. Footage of the two leaders crossing the border was seen as holding great symbolic significance. At roughly the same time he sent Trump a letter, Kim also wrote to Moon apologizing that he was not able to visit Seoul in 2018, as had been agreed during the “inter-Korean” summit in September. This warming of relations also manifested itself in different ways, including having the teams of both countries parading together during the Winter Olympics opening ceremony.
Although largely geared toward a domestic audience with its emphasis on national-level economic programs, Kim’s New Year address also made waves for seemingly calling on the US to resume the stalled nuclear negotiations. Although he praised the meeting in Singapore, Kim also struck a defiant note by saying: “If the US does not keep the promises it made in front of the world, misjudges the patience of our people, forces a unilateral demand on us, and firmly continues with sanctions and pressures on our republic, we might be compelled to explore new ways to protect our autonomy and interests, and establish peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
The contentious issues that remain between the two nations are complicated, especially that of denuclearization. In fact, there seems to be a lack of clarity on what North Korea means exactly when its leader speaks about it. While some Korea watchers in the US think there is a chance that Kim might be willing to completely reverse course and give up his nuclear weapons entirely, others see a more limited commitment to stop proliferation and further development as a more likely outcome. For its part, Pyongyang seems to be looking for reciprocal measures in the form of ending US military drills with South Korea, and it often makes references to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, implying that it envisions the US removing some weapons systems from the South.
What happens next in the negotiations between the US and North Korea is anyone’s guess. How the US should proceed is also a matter of dispute. Critics of North Korea argue that Kim will only respond to more sanctions and pressure; the proverbial sticks. Others — including North Korean diplomats — argue that Pyongyang does not respond well to pressure and is looking for incentives, or carrots, before it agrees to moderate its behavior and sit down to negotiate the future of its nuclear weapons program.
History has shown us that carrots can sometimes work, but at other times sticks are needed. For example, critics of the nuclear agreement with Iran argued — convincingly — that the easing of sanctions that was part of the agreement has not led Tehran to moderate its behavior and that it has continued destabilize the region. Whether carrots or sticks are what leads North Korea to moderate its behavior, only time will tell.
- Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an international fellow at the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization. Twitter: @fanazer