Kim Jong-un. Picture: AFP PHOTO
Kim Jong-un. Picture: AFP PHOTO

Singapore/Seoul — Kim Jong-un is giving up on hopes that US President Donald Trump will lift sanctions anytime soon.

Alongside the North Korean leader’s latest sabre-rattling this week was a stunning admission: efforts to engage the US had failed. Kim’s plan now is to find a way to survive under crushing economic sanctions while building an even stronger nuclear deterrent to force Washington to compromise.

“We can never sell our dignity, which we have so far defended as something as valuable as our own lives, in the hope of a brilliant transformation,” Kim said, according to excerpts from an unusual seven-hour speech this week to party leaders in Pyongyang. “The DPRK-US standoff, which has lasted for generations, has now been compressed into a clear standoff between self-reliance and sanctions.”

While Kim blamed the crisis on what he called American treachery, his remarks were an implicit acknowledgment that his decision to play down his nuclear programme in a bid for sanctions relief didn’t work. North Korea still languishes under the same international blockade it did in 2018, when Kim announced he was prioritising the economy over weapons development, halted missile tests and held the first of three unprecedented meetings with Trump.

Kim’s latest plan sounds a lot like a return to his “byungjin line” of 2013, which called for paying equal attention to developing North Korea’s economy and solidifying its status as a nuclear-armed power. This time, Kim made party leaders pledge to carry out a policy called “the offensive for frontal breakthrough”, a strategy that he said would require political, diplomatic and military action. The nation must “tighten our belts”, he said.

Kim Jong-un (centre) visits battle sites at Mount Paektu. Picture: STR/KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/ANGELA WEISS
Kim Jong-un (centre) visits battle sites at Mount Paektu. Picture: STR/KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/ANGELA WEISS

The shift illustrates the limits of Kim’s historic diplomatic gains, including more than a dozen meetings with heads of state and government since making his first trip abroad in March 2018. Although his rekindled ties with Cold War-era allies such as China and Russia have provided some promise of tourist cash, food aid and diplomatic support, he can’t escape the most biting American, South Korean and UN sanctions without Washington’s blessing.

“This was Kim clearly rejecting the Trump administration’s proposal offering North Korea a bright future for its economy,” said Shin Bum-chul, who studies inter-Korean relations at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and is a former researcher in South Korea’s defence ministry. “Instead, it’s seen as North Korea deciding to strive for independent economic growth, which would serve as grounds for becoming a legitimate nuclear state.”

New weapon

Kim’s new military threats — declaring the end of his testing freeze and pledging to “shock” the US over sanctions — could also jeopardise what diplomatic space he has secured for himself. Besides provoking Trump, Kim could anger Chinese President Xi Jinping if he raises the threat of another war on the Korean Peninsula or conducts tests that send radiation wafting across the border.

Kim had already begun to escalate tensions after Trump walked out of their last formal summit in February, carrying out a record-breaking barrage of ballistic missile tests in 2019. His speech promised to soon debut a “new strategic weapon”, which non-proliferation experts say could be anything from a nuclear-armed submarine to a more advanced form of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Even though sanctions have helped push North Korea’s economy into its worst downturn since a historic famine in the 1990s, the regime has continued to make nuclear advances. Kim might believe he has found enough holes in the sanctions regime to push off negotiations with the US, a former UN official told Bloomberg News in November.

The renewed emphasis on self-reliance — a concept central to the “Juche” [self-reliance] ideology of Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung — may help stoke nationalistic fervour to ride out a prolonged recession. Still, any demand for belt-tightening risks fomenting dissent, especially among Pyongyang elites who have reaped many of the gains from Kim’s experiments with market reforms.

‘Gamble’

Kim has gone back and forth on the need for austerity since vowing shortly after taking power in 2011 that the people would “never have to tighten their belt again”.

“It’s a gamble,” Robert Carlin, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Centre for International Security and Co-operation who has made more than 20 trips to North Korea, told reporters on Tuesday. “Kim has been, in effect, loosening — helping them loosen — the belt over the past several years, and now to tighten it up again is going to cause, at least cause grumbling, if not worse, among some in the population, maybe some in the leadership.”

That danger may help explain recent efforts by North Korea’s omnipresent state propaganda machine to portray Kim as a commanding figure in the mould of his revered grandfather. Marathon state television coverage of Kim’s speech, which he delivered seated behind a large and ornate wooden desk raised above the gathering, demonstrated his control over the ruling party.

White horse

That was followed by the release of a video on Thursday of Kim riding a white horse through the snows of Mount Paektu, a sacred site where the regime says Kim Sung-il led guerrillas against the Japanese.

In the speech, Kim indicated that sanctions have forced him to shift his approach.

“Nothing has changed between the days when we maintained the line of simultaneously pushing forward the economic construction and building of nuclear force, and now when we struggle to direct our efforts to the economic construction due to the US’s gangster-like acts,” Kim told party leaders. “There is no need to hesitate with any expectations of the US lifting sanctions.”

Bloomberg