A summit that may pop fear in North Korea

North Koreans saw their leader meeting an archenemy and touting the glories of Singapore’s economy. Kim Jong-un might have unleashed expectations that his dictatorship cannot control.

North Korea's Korean Central News Agency via Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, accompanied by Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, visits Singapore June 11.

As the world’s most repressive tyranny, the North Korean regime has survived by keeping its people in the dark, dampening their expectations, and instilling a fear of external enemies, especially the United States. Yet that survival strategy was hardly at work during the historic summit in Singapore on Tuesday between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Trump.

North Korea’s official media told the nation of 26 million that the talks could bring a “permanent and durable peace mechanism” with the US. TV images showed Mr. Kim touring Singapore, where “every building is stylish,” the streets are clean, and the country’s “good” development is worth following. Even the fact that the “supreme leader” had visited a country other than neighboring China must have created a mood of anticipation among North Koreans.

This summit was about more than denuclearization. In fact, the agreement to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons will require Kim to allow a freedom that its people do not enjoy. Inspectors will need to travel the country without restriction and under no surveillance. To assure a verifiable and irreversible elimination of weapons, every building and mountain must be opened.

North Koreans are not used to challenging their leaders. Yet now foreigners could be roaming the country demanding access. The bubble of isolation and fear could be burst.

In addition, Kim wants to open his economy, which has been hit hard by recent sanctions. In a speech two months ago, he told the ruling party he wants to tap the country’s economic potential and “make the people’s laughter resound far and wide.”

For a dictatorship, freedom of thought, trade, and travel is a dangerous path. People will have more ownership of their own future. Most of all, as their expectations rise, North Koreans could lose their fear and follow South Korea in its popular protests to remove leaders. 

They could mentally withdraw their consent to be governed by the Kim dynasty. Instead of the US as the enemy, Kim could face a real foe in his own people.

Many authoritarian regimes have fallen when the people are no longer afraid to voice their views and demand their rights. Such a change will be difficult to detect in North Korea. The fear of being jailed for even a hint of dissent is real to anyone who has visited the country.

Yet a window was opened at the Singapore summit that reveals the possibility of change. Kim himself appears to want a different economic future for his people, one more like Singapore’s. But in possibly opening the country to inspections and inviting development, he may also be liberating his people. Fear would no longer be an organizing principle for North Korean society.

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