Is Kim Jong Un’s Unwavering Faith in Donald Trump Sincere? By Jun Kwon and Sung Jang
On 9th September 2018, North Korea celebrated its 70th anniversary. While events such as this are plentiful around the world, it is uniquely important when it comes to North Korea because it offers an opportunity for outside press to analyze the mood within North Korea.
North Korea is an opaque state with a regime that places heavy importance in symbolic displays. While there are many who doubt Kim Jong Un’s sincerity in denuclearization, North Korea’s anniversary military parade this year has shown no nuclear weapons, nor visible ICBMs on display. This may very well indicate that North Korea still remains interested in negotiations with Trump admiration over its nuclear program.
In a response, President Trump tweeted “North Korea has just staged their parade, celebrating 70th anniversary of founding, without the customary display of nuclear missiles…This is a big and very positive statement from North Korea. Thank you To Chairman Kim.” It is a hopeful sign of a possible change in the long-term plans of North Korea in regards to its nuclear weapons development.
Last month, Donald Trump ordered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to call off high-level talks with North Korea citing a lack of real progress on the denuclearisation issue. Actions such as this have been common in American foreign policy as we witnessed in the process of the Trump-Kim Summit. However, what is unusual is Kim Jong Un’s declaration of his “unwavering faith” in Donald Trump shortly after Trump called off the high-level talks. Why Kim Jong Un would diverge from the North Korean habit of retaliating with anger?
Reason One: South Korea’s Commitment to Peace under President Moon Jae-in
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has been adamantly committed to warming relations with North Korea. Under President Moon, open dialogue with North Korea has been a key point in the negotiating phase. Moon has repeatedly called for more meetings with North Korea and is scheduled to meet with Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang from September 18th-20th. This is different from his predecessors Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak who were staunchly conservative leaders who took a tougher approach to North Korea. It is possible that Moon Jae-in’s reassurances with North Korea and a shift of tone over the last year or so have allowed North Korea to relax its heightened need for security as a military threat from the South has overall decreased.
Reason Two: Donald Trump’s personality
Out of all the administrations that have dealt with North Korea, the Trump administration has been unique. Instead of following precedence from previous administrations, Trump’s unpredictable style of politics has landed Kim Jong Un a meeting with the leader of the Western world. It is very possible that Kim Jong Un’s faith in Donald Trump is a charm offensive designed to take advantage of Trump’s impulsive nature.
Secondly, Donald Trump unlike his predecessors, has had an affinity for authoritarian leaders around the world, praising figures such as Vladimir Putin. Kim Jong Un may see this as an opportune moment to build a strong rapport and communication lines with the United States in the long-run. North Korea is effectively trying to normalize itself with the international community and the preference of continued diplomacy over retaliation will may be helpful toward that end.
Reason Three: Kim Jong-un’s legacy – economic development
It is no secret that North Korea is an impoverished country. Although Kim is securely in power, like any authoritarian leader, legitimacy is very important. While ideological legitimacy has so far been effective in controlling the population of North Korea, Kim Jong Un wants to make a name for himself much like his father and grandfather before him. Kim Jong Un’s Byungjin (Parallel Development of Economy and Nuclear Weapons) politics is planned to be an extension of his father’s Songun (Military-first) politics, which is an extension of his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s Juche (Self-reliance) ideology.
Kim Jong Un’s Byungjin politics calls for military strength to go hand in hand with economic prosperity. The failure to lift economic sanctions on North Korea would be disastrous to his legacy and potentially dangerous to his personal safety and survival as while North Korea’s general population is very well obedient, as with any authoritarian regimes, there are factions within the government ready to take over at any time.
So the question remains: Is Kim Jong Un sincere in his denuclearisation? So far, the answer has been leaning towards a cautious yes. Skeptics are right to doubt North Korea’s intentions especially since North Korea has had a history of reneging on international treaties regarding its nuclear weapons program. And the nuclear negotiations are in a stalemate over handing over a list of nuclear test sites as well as nuclear warheads from North Korea and the declaration of official ending of the Korean War from the U.S.
However, considering that North Korea is a state that highly values the power of symbolism and uses its parades as a tool of propaganda to show North Korea’s military strength, the lack of any nuclear weapons equipment and ICBMs is certainly remarkable. It is very possible that Kim Jong Un is sincere in abandoning his nuclear weapons program to base his legitimacy on something else that the country so desperately needs, visible economic growth.
Jun Kwon is Chair of International Studies and Assistant Professor of Government at Utica College. Sung Jang is government student at Utica College.