Kim, North Korea's Kim at critical crossroads - a decade into his rule

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- Too young. Too inexperienced. Too inexperienced.

Kim, North Korea's Kim at critical crossroads - a decade into his rule

Kim Jong Un, who took power after his father's sudden death ten years ago this week has erased the widespread doubts that were greeted by his early attempts at extending his brutal dynastic control over North Korea.

An estimated number of executions and purges against family members and the elderly guard thwarted early predictions about a regency or a group leadership or military coup. Kim has made it clear that his authority is absolute through this ruthless consolidation and the addition of a larger than life personality.

As North Korea's first millennial dictator celebrates a decade of rule, this Friday will be his most difficult moment. The pandemic, crushing sanctions and increasing economic troubles are all convergent. Kim's failure to uphold his public promise to develop both his nuclear weapons and his economy that is ailing, which many experts consider impossible, could spell trouble for his long term rule.

After the modest economic growth that he experienced over several years with trade and market-oriented reforms, international sanctions were tightened. In 2016, Kim began his pursuit of nuclear weapons as well as missiles against the United States and its Asian allies.

Kim, who was in the spotlight in summits with Donald Trump in 2018 & 2019, is now back at home and struggling with a declining economy that has been made worse by border closures related to pandemics.

After Trump's refusal to grant him the necessary sanctions relief, negotiations with Washington remain deadlocked for over two years. The administration of President Joe Biden seems to be in no rush to make a deal with Washington unless Kim is willing to end his nuclear weapons program. He regards it as his greatest guarantee of survival.

Kim is still in control but it seems increasingly unlikely that he will achieve his stated goals of simultaneously preserving his nukes and bringing about prosperity for his poor people. In his first speech as leader, Kim stated this goal and promised that the North Koreans "would never have to tighten up their belts again".

Kim's economic management in the next years will determine his long-term stability and the future of his family's lineage, according to Park Won Gon (a professor of North Korea Studies at Seoul's Ewha Womans University).

"The stability of the regime, the economy, and the nuclear weapons program are all interrelated." Park stated that if the nuclear issue is not resolved, the economy won't improve and that could lead to disquiet or confusion in North Korea's society.

Kim needs to be freed from U.S. sanctions in order to rebuild his economy. His economy has been severely damaged by decades of mismanagement, military spending, and years of war.

However, meaningful U.S. relief will not be granted unless Kim takes concrete steps towards denuclearization. Trump did not pursue summitry despite his insistence on sanctions. He described Washington's main leverage over Pyongyang and it is unclear whether Kim will ever see another U.S. President as open to engaging with the North.

After their February 2019 second summit, when North Korea demanded a significant lifting of sanctions in return for the dismantling of an old nuclear facility, America's diplomacy collapsed. This would have been a partial surrender of North Korea's nuclear capabilities.

Since a failed follow up meeting between working-level officials back in October, the two sides have not met publicly. Kim pledged at a domestic conference two months later to expand his nuclear arsenal to withstand "gangster-like U.S. pressure." He also urged his people to remain resilient in their struggle for economic independence.

However, the global COVID-19 crises has hindered some of Kim’s most important economic goals. The country was forced to impose a lockdown which crippled trade with China, its only major ally.

The spy agency in South Korea recently informed lawmakers that North Korea's annual trade volume with China fell by two-thirds to $185million through September 2021. According to the agency, North Korean officials are also concerned by rising food prices, high commodity prices, and a shortage of essential supplies, which have all contributed to the rapid spread of waterborne diseases such as Typhoid fever.

Talks with the United States remain in limbo. Talks with the United States are in limbo after the withdrawal from Afghanistan by the Biden administration. This was a shift in U.S. attention from counterterrorism and so called rogue states like North Korea or Iran to confronting China.

The North has rejected the offer so far, saying Washington must first end its "hostile strategy", which Pyongyang uses mainly to refer to sanctions or U.S.-South Korea militarily exercises.

Andrei Lankov, a professor from Seoul's Kookmin University, said that North Korea will not surrender its nuclear weapons no matter what. "The only topic they will talk about is not denuclearization, but issues related to arms control," said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul's Kookmin University.

However, Kim could benefit from the Washington-Beijing conflict, Lankov stated. This increases North Korea's strategic importance to China. China is willing and able to keep North Korea afloat through the expansion of food, fuel, and other aid. This reduces Kim's willingness to negotiate with America.

Lankov stated that North Korea will experience stagnation instead of growth. However, it won't be in an acute crisis. It's acceptable compromise for Kim Jong Un, his elite, and it's acceptable."

In the face of the country's recent pandemic border closures, North Korea has taken aggressive steps to regain greater control over its economy. Kim's previous reforms that allowed private investment and gave more autonomy to state enterprises to encourage domestic production, and also provided market incentives for factories and factories to promote trade and facilitate domestic production have been reversed.

Also, there have been indications that North Korean officials are limiting the use of U.S. Dollars and other foreign currencies on markets. This is an apparent sign of concern about depleting foreign currency reserves.

It could be vital to restore central control of the economy in order to mobilize state resources for Kim's nuclear program expansion, which would be difficult if the economy worsens.

Kim suspended testing of long-range missiles and nuclear devices for three years. However, he has increased testing of shorter-range weapons that could threaten U.S. allies South Korea or Japan.

"Nukes brought Kim into this mess, but he continues a contradictory strategy of pushing nukes to get rid of it," stated Go Myong-hyun (a senior analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute of Policy Studies).

The U.S.-led sanctions regime is likely to continue, and a return of a state-controlled economy has never been an option for North Korea in the recent past. Kim will have to make a decision about how long he will keep his nukes. This could be very soon, Go said.

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