Despite a familial legacy of “Juche” (self reliance) that earned the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea the nickname “the Hermit Kingdom,” Chairman Kim Jong-un appears to be pursuing a path that will throw his country into the international spotlight and change the history of North Asia.
Kim, whose enigmatic early life has been only partially pieced together, spent his adolescence years in Swiss boarding schools. Those formative years exposed him to lifestyles, social, political and economic experiences and ideas denied in his homeland. He saw the prosperity that free commerce and capitalism create. His country, however, is poor, backward and, as a man only in his mid 30s, he could very well be not only open to change, but hungry for it.
South Korea’s internationally successful hosting of the Winter Olympic Games, attended by Kim’s younger sister and key advisor, Kim Yo-jong, demonstrated it’s affluence, commercial successes and technological advances. It was also a stark and painful contrast to a dismal, broken North Korea. Decades of Communist North propaganda about the miseries, depravities and poverty of South Korea likely have become tiresome to a man with a more modern soul (and desire for McDonalds).
But South Korea is not Kim’s only example of what could be. Communist East Germany and capitalist West Germany reunited into a single, thriving commercial power in Europe. North and South Vietnam also reunified, albeit by more violent means, into a very capitalist-looking enterprise and tourist destination with far more in common with Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul than with Ho Chi Minh City of the 1970s, Russia and China are not the staid, gray, depressing enclaves of Khruschev and Mao as both have created massive economies that have produced millionaires, billionaires and a growing upper middle class.
Half of the world’s six richest cities are within 800 miles of Pyongyang; Tokyo,
Beijing and Shanghai. Notice that two of those cities are Chinese. Hong Kong (#8 on the list), is but 1,340 miles from the North Korean capital. Seoul, South Korea, only 120 miles from Pyongyang, is also among the world’s richest metropolitan areas.
Juche and a martial economy have been disastrous for North Korea for over 60 years, offering nothing but misery for everyone between the Korean DMZ and the border with China. Kim cannot and probably does not ignore the Russia, China, Germany and Vietnam models
Further, China has lost patience with the economic parasite and social/political nuisance that is North Korea. The nuclear chaos the North has created causes problems for China and no doubt led to an intervention between China the mentor and the delinquent North Korea.
President Trump’s relationship with President Xi has clearly been a major element in Kim’s transformation. Xi undoubtedly advised Kim that Trump can be trusted and that a plan of reconciliation, cultural/political revision and, yes, de-nuclearization will be met with physical and fiscal security, sanctions relief and economic aid.
Xi probably gave Kim another assurance; personal safety and his continued tenure as North Korea’s leader. The only losers in a Korean detente is the old school North Korean military heiarchy whose positions of influence and affluence
in the Pyongyang regime will disappear. Kim supposedly fears an overthrow were he to pursue reform – fears likely of good cause. However, if Xi were to guarantee Kim’s safety and make that contract known to North Korea’s military elite, the possibility of a coup would be cauterized.
With the examples of neo-communism, the mentorship of Xi Jinping, the influences of younger and more open advisors and the outstretched hand of President Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un now has the opportunity to become a (wealthy) international superstar and iconic leader that will outshine both his father and grandfather. And with those personal achievements, an entire country will be rescued from poverty, disease, malnutrition, ignorance and fear and the world will move closer to peace.