Just a year ago, the world was tracking how much North Korea might be a threat as it tested new missiles and nuclear weapons. President Trump even promised “fire and fury” if the United States were attacked. These days, as yet another summit takes place between the two Koreas, the world is instead tracking how much the North’s young dictator, Kim Jong-un, wants economic freedom for his 25 million people.
A possible shift in Mr. Kim’s thinking may be visible during this week’s visit of Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, to Pyongyang – their third summit. Mr. Moon brought along nearly a dozen top business executives to see if North Korea might be ready to take concrete steps in opening itself for trade and investment. In a summit last April, Moon offered a “new economic map” that would connect the two countries through roads, railways, and pipelines.
Their latest meeting is yet another test to see if Kim sees his survival relying more on progress toward a market economy and fulfilling his people’s rising expectations than in a nuclear arsenal that so far has done little for the regime.
If that is the case, then he may be ready to negotiate away his weapons in a grand deal with the US that could include a formal peace pact and a reduction of US forces on the peninsula. Another summit with Mr. Trump, like their historic meeting in Singapore last June, is being discussed for later this year.
North Korea watchers see strong signals that Kim wants to boost market competition in an economy that has been tightly controlled for 70 years under a socialist family dynasty. He may have no choice.
Decades of mismanagement have left North Korea with a per capita gross national income that is less than 5 percent of South Korea’s. Spending on the military eats up about a third of the official budget. And tough sanctions imposed by the United Nations after last year’s weapons tests have helped to shrink the economy.
The first signals of the regime’s openness to the world began in the 1990s under the current Kim’s grandfather – but only after aid from Moscow dried up with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It took a mass famine to drive the North Korean people to start growing food for themselves and to sell it in local markets, known as jangmadang. The country now has hundreds of such markets selling all sorts of goods in both local and foreign currency.
This informal economy may now exceed the official one. In a small survey of North Koreans for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, 83 percent said outside goods and information had a greater impact on their lives than decisions by the government.
In addition, state-run enterprises have lately been allowed to use American dollars and calculate supply and demand. Authorities are even cultivating a culture of competition and innovation. In an official parade last week that celebrated the country’s anniversary, there was no display of long-range missiles as in the past. Instead, one float proclaimed the “robust foundation of an economically strong state.”
The rise in individual freedom, if only in the economy, cannot be ignored by the regime. Political freedom may be far off but Kim must feel pressure to compromise with the US in return for the hope of prosperity.
Negotiations to find the right sequence of necessary compromises may be difficult. The sanctions will probably stay in place until the North denuclearizes. But the demands of North Koreans for more freedom is now easier to see.