To begin with, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is said to be one of the most secretive nations in the world. It’s not that North Korea is simply secretive. All countries in one manner or another are secretive. The DPRK, however, tends to be, as the 1939 quote from Winston Churchill about Russia goes, “… a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” Importantly, the leadership in Pyongyang enjoys it that way. For centuries the dominant regime in the northern part of the Korean peninsula was known as “The Hermit Kingdom.” What exists today is merely a modern version of the historic past. The problem that exists in maintaining this character for North Korea is that its relatively young leader Kim Jong Un (age approximately 35) enjoys international attention – good and bad. Hardly the image of a hermit.
The most important issue for the DPRK is its desire to be recognized as a significant world power. This is the driving force behind Pyongyang’s drive for nuclear weapon capability. At the same time, having a nuclear weapon capability is deemed the DPRK’s ultimate defense weapon, in that its potential use would deter any aggression against their nation. Here is where Washington faces its greatest challenge. Somehow the U.S. must create an environment whereby the leadership in North Korea no longer views the Americans as an existential threat. This begins with Kim Jong Un’s personal sense of security.
This then brings us to the question with which the Trump Administration, and past presidencies, have been faced. What can be done to convince the Pyongyang leadership that the U.S. has no desire to oust the government originated by Kim Il Sung in 1948, now led by his grandson. The first steps by President Trump seem to be based on the creation of a personal relationship with Kim Jong Un. The second step obviously must be in the form of something the North would consider a major gift. That surely would have to include – at least in part – major shipments of desperately needed agricultural products for winter provisioning.
The unfortunate fact is that the DPRK has only approximately 15-18% of their country as arable land, depending on the source. The rest is all rocky mountainous terrain. The amount of tillable land is far less than required to sustain its population. North Korea is a nation that must rely on importing food stuffs from its southern brothers, including China and other friendly sources. In turn the northern portion of the Korean peninsula is rich in minerals available for sale and trade, if the mining process can be technically developed to compete in world markets. It is clear that this is an economy that can work if it is administrated properly. Of this Kim Jong Un and his advisors are well aware. However, they are so bound by the contrary nature of their political economy they cannot and will not for the moment take advantage of the obvious potential of less rigid military and security driven policies.
It is said that the DPRK is a dictatorship. It is certainly true that the Stalinist communist government constructed by Kim Il Sung was just that. However, the leadership structure since then has evolved into something different – while at the same time retaining the essence of central control that remains just as strong. In reality, Kim Jong Un does have the same singular power that existed under his father and grandfather. That power, however, is constrained by the existence of several pressure centers that have evolved over past years. The fracturing of the command structure and the differing personality of the prime leader has led to a broader dispersal of power. At the same time the basic structure has retained the actual and theoretical dominance of the singular leader. Kim did agree to have his uncle and half-brother assassinated for their roles in an attempted (or perceived) coup. In Western terms, the DPRK power and command structure resembles more of an old Balkan mid-level European monarchy led by an extended family and its friends, with the young Kim at its head. Appropriately, Kim Jong Un is now officially titled, “The Great Successor/”
As a result of the foregoing, dealing with today’s Kim is in some ways more complex than negotiating would have been under his all-powerful predecessors. There are more constituencies to be satisfied now. In addition, Kim’s health is more a factor than his press allows to be seen. He suffers from a glandular-related morbid obesity with all its negative health ramifications, according to Swiss medical personnel who have treated him. The DPRK leader has limited physical capacity to deal with the always demanding factors of directing a modern and complex society. Delegation is therefore a physical as well as political necessity. This is a subject never noted publicly, but well understood by the power centers that already are competing sub rosa for post Kim leadership.