Why North Korea may be primed for a deal

Few other countries carry such a heavy burden in military spending. Perhaps Kim Jong-un wants to join a global trend in curbing costs on armed personnel and weapons.

Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un acknowledges a welcome from military officers during a 2017 visit to the Army's Strategic Forces.

If somehow North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agrees to a disarmament-and-peace deal with President Trump at talks planned for June 12, one reason may be this: He wants to reduce the heavy burden of paying for one of the world’s largest standing armies.

North Korea’s spending on its military eats up about a third of the official budget – yet one more cause of its mass poverty. No other country ranks as high in military expenditures as a percentage of the overall economy. And to add to this burden, 1 out of every 25 North Koreans serves in the armed forces.

One possible sign that Mr. Kim could be seeking cuts in the military was an unconfirmed report that he recently replaced his three top generals. The top brass may be unhappy about Kim possibly putting butter before guns. In April, he told the political elite that it’s time to adopt a “new strategic line” that emphasizes the economy.

Given the history of Pyongyang breaking past agreements on its nuclear program, any deal reached in the talks in Singapore must go through a reality check. Still, if Kim’s main motive for a deal is to boost the economy (as a way to stay in power), then North Korea will be joining dozens of other nations that have lately trimmed their military spending.

According to the latest Global Peace Index, nearly three-quarter of countries have reduced the number of armed services personnel per 100,000 people, from 458 a decade ago to 396 last year.

In addition, military spending as a percentage of gross national product is also in a decline. It fell from 2.28 percent of GDP in 2008 to 2.22 last year. Twice as many countries cut their spending in 2018 as raised it. And in another measure of demilitarization, more countries also reduced their export or import of weapons per capita last year.

Is North Korea ready to jump on this global trend?

Domestic pressure on Kim to focus on the economy may be driving him to the summit with Mr. Trump. But just as possible is that he is more aware of other countries seeking to invest in peaceful pursuits rather than spending on weapons and armed personnel.

Since the end of World War II, violence in armed conflict has been in decline. Many diplomatic successes in curbing weapons and putting a focus on economic development are one reason. After decades of isolating itself and threatening its neighbors, North Korea could be ready to follow this trend. Peace can be an attractive force.

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