To one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, T.S. Eliot, April “is the cruelest month.” But for the North Korean state, April is the month of festivities. In 1974, North Korean government designated April 15 – the birthday of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea and grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un – as the nation’s biggest public holiday calling it the Day of the Sun.
This April 15 is particularly important, since Kim Jong Un will also celebrate the 10th anniversary of his complete succession to power. But the celebration under the shadow of new apartment complexes in Pyongyang, alongside new ballistic weapons, will be papering over Kim Jong Un’s failure on all fronts.
Kim ascended to the post of commander-in-chief of the Korean People’s Army on December 30, 2011, soon after the death of his father Kim Jong Il on December 17, 2011. However, his succession was not complete until he took the top positions in the party and government as well. Kim Jong Un became the first secretary of the North Korean Workers’ Party on April 11, 2012, and the first chairman of the National Defense Commission – then the highest government organization of North Korea – on April 13, 2012.
Simply holding all of North Korea’s top positions did not guarantee a bright future for Kim. At that time, he was only 28 years old and still saddled with advisers of his father’s generation. Moreover, he had only two years of training as the successor to the throne. Thus, his personal domestic political base was weak. To make the situation even more precarious for the young Kim, the monetary reform carried out by Kim Jong Il in 2009 failed as soon as it began, shaking the economic foundations of North Korea.
Kim Jong Un began to tackle domestic political challenges in order to tighten his grip on power. Relying on an extreme reign of terror, he ruthlessly purged people around him and even executed his uncle Jang Song Thaek, who served as not only the second-in-command during Kim Jong Il’s rule, but also as Kim Jong Un’s personal guardian.
Then he moved on to the economy and foreign affairs. The byungjin line, announced by Kim Jong Un at a Korean Workers’ Party meeting in March 2013, entailed improving North Korea’s economy while simultaneously strengthening its nuclear weapons program (billed by Pyongyang as a nuclear deterrent). While pursuing economic growth internally, Kim intended to promote both North Korea-U.S. relations and inter-Korean relations externally using the development of nuclear weapons to gain leverage in negotiations.
For the first three years, the byungjin policy seemed to work well. The economy grew significantly through various reform measures and the introduction of greater incentives. North Korea’s economic growth rate in 2016 was estimated to be 3.9 percent, the highest since 2000. North Korea’s nuclear capability also increased substantially. Four nuclear tests were conducted between 2013 and 2017, and various medium and long-range missile tests, including tests of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), were also conducted.
But that was the end of Kim’s happy story.
Kim’s game plan to use North Korea’s nuclear weapons to bolster his bargaining power hit a snag. The United States and the U.N. Security Council, backed by even China and Russia, decided to impose severe economic sanctions against North Korea. As a result, North Korea’s economy contracted by 3.5 percent in 2017 and 4.1 percent in 2018. Trade also fell 57 percent over two years, from $6.5 billion in 2016 to $2.8 billion in 2018.
Kim panicked and tried to make a deal. Through the inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom in April 2018 and the North Korea-U.S. summit in Singapore in June, he sought sanctions relief in exchange for giving up some of his nuclear weapons. As we all know well, his efforts ended in total failure at the subsequent Hanoi summit in February 2019. This also spelled the end of the byungjin policy. Since then, North Korea has declared a return to its past policies. Economically, it has restored the traditional socialist planned economic system and has been once again loudly promoting self-reliance, a slogan of Kim Il Sung.
Furthermore, the current international environment is adverse to North Korea. Since its inauguration, the Biden administration has been overwhelmed both domestically in tackling COVID-19 and internationally in countering an aggressive and expansionist China. Making matters worse, the current war in Ukraine further lowered the priority of North Korea in U.S. foreign policy. North Korea feels it has been forgotten by a world preoccupied by more pressing matters. That’s why Pyongyang resumed its frequent missile tests last January.
In South Korea, the conservative candidate, Yoon Suk-yeol, won the presidential election held on March 9. He has been unhesitant in laying out his hawkish stance on North Korea, including even the possibility of developing preemptive strike capabilities against the North’s nuclear facilities and missile threats. Moreover, President-elect Yoon, who emphasized strengthening South Korea-U.S. relations throughout his campaign, will not attempt an independent initiative to improve inter-Korean relations without consent from Washington.
Meanwhile, since 2020 North Korea has completely shut itself off from the world – including China, its closest trade partner – to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from wreaking havoc within the country. That has taken an immense toll on the North’s economy, above and beyond the damage already done by sanctions.
To restore his deteriorating economy and ensure internal stability, Kim needs economic sanctions to be lifted, which requires improving relations with Washington. In the end, North Korea’s future depends on its relations with the United States, and Kim is well aware of this fact. That’s why Kim expressed his willingness to hold a third North Korea-U.S. summit in a speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly in April 2019, only two months after the humiliating Hanoi summit. At a plenary session of the Labor Party’s Central Committee in June 2021, Kim said that his country needs to be prepared not only for confrontation but also for dialogue with the United States.
The view from Washington is that the ball is in North Korea’s court at this stage, that Kim needs to make the strategic choice to commit to negotiations. Clearly, Kim is holding a weak hand, and the conventional wisdom is to wait him out. However, there are risks for the United States and South Korea in not engaging with a weakening and potentially unstable North Korea. The near-term risk of military escalation caused by a frustrated North Korea lashing out cannot be dismissed.
There is also a longer-term strategic risk. China’s support for sanctions against North Korea has waned, and it now stands ready to further expand its influence in North Korea – as soon as both sides are ready to re-open to exchanges after locking down amid the pandemic. An alliance with a great power, like North Korea’s with China, can quickly become a proxy relationship when there is instability in the weaker state. That was seen recently in the relationship between Belarus and Russia. Gone are the days when negotiations with North Korea could be viewed solely as an effort to tame a rogue regime. Instead, any approach to North Korea must also take into account the balance of power in Northeast Asia.
This April, a spectacular parade will be held at the Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Kim Jong Un’s complete succession to power, as well as the 110th birthday of Kim Il Sung. Outwardly it may look happy, but the veneer of mirth hides the cruel reality of life in North Korea. The choices Kim Jong Un makes will determine whether the happiness displayed in Aprils to come will be genuine or will remains a false facade hiding the continued cruelty of his rule.