The joint statement Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un signed on June 12 doesn’t seem particularly impressive if you take it at face value, but seen in the broader context, its significance cannot be ignored.
After the summit held on Singapore’s Sentosa Island, the two leaders promised to improve U.S.-North Korean relations. Kim Jong-un, leader of North Korea, reaffirmed the declaration he made during an earlier trip to South Korea to commit to working “toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
The joint statement did not specify any further steps in the denuclearization process, leading many to think that the summit was more of a publicity stunt than a successful act of diplomacy.
However, there are many indications that Kim Jong-un is driving his country in a new direction. North Korea may eventually agree to give up its nuclear weapons and implement economic reforms that would bring it out of the abject poverty and isolation it has suffered for generations.
This April, Kim gave a speech in which he said that “socialist economic construction” should be the “new strategic line,” and said that North Korea didn’t need to test any more nuclear bombs or missiles. This was a shift from his earlier policy of “byungjin,” or parallel development of the military and economy, and is the opposite of “son’gun” — the even older policy that means “army first.”
North Korea is ruled by the totalitarian Korean Workers’ Party, a communist regime that keeps its people under tight ideological control. Until recently, North Korea conducted nuclear and ballistic missile tests as part of its strategy to pressure other countries to provide it with critically-needed aid.
But following heavy international sanctions on North Korea and the unyielding stance of the American government, Kim Jong-un turned to diplomacy, visiting China and South Korea, then finally holding the Singapore summit with President Trump.
Kim’s “socialist economic construction” sounds similar to communist China’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” the title used to refer to the market economic reforms that propelled China from a nation ravaged by the Great Chinese Famine and the Cultural Revolution to the world’s second-biggest economy.
It is possible that Kim wants to set his country on the same path, and is willing to give up his nuclear weapons to do it. In the past, China seemed to tolerate North Korea’s nuclear program, even though Beijing and other major Chinese cities are just a few hundred miles away from North Korean missile launch sites. But Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2012, was not as friendly with North Korea as previous high-ranking Chinese officials, many of whom were purged in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.
Xi’s administration also cooperated with the strong U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea starting in late 2016, which seems to have played a key role in bringing Kim to the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, China is facing pressure from the United States in the form of a trade war over tariffs, intellectual property theft, and other transgressions. It is possible that the Chinese government encouraged Kim Jong-un to assume a more conciliatory stance in order to reduce tensions and protect its own economy from aggressive U.S. policy.
If Kim Jong-un is really preparing to reform the North Korean economy using the Chinese example, it may be because of guarantees made by Beijing to protect the regime from political collapse.
But meanwhile, if North Korea is to take concrete steps to dismantle its nuclear program in a “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” manner as demanded by the U.S. government, it may take further negotiations, since Kim Jong-un faces tremendous pressure to not appear weak or lose face in front of his people and the rest of the government.
Shortly after the Singapore summit had concluded, the North Korean state media reported that Kim Jong-un had accepted an invitation from President Trump for him to visit Washington, D.C.