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Editorial: N. Korea remains isolated 10 years after Kim Jong Un took power

  • December 20, 2021
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 3:20 p.m.
  • English Press

This month marks the 10th anniversary of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s ascent to power following the death of his father, the late Kim Jong Il.

 

As the ill-prepared 20-something heir to the North Korean leadership power, many North Korea watchers predicted his rule would be short-lived. But he has managed to solidify his power base in the past decade and now reigns over the hermit kingdom under the honorific “supreme dignity.”

 

But he has failed to deliver on his promise to never allow the people to go hungry, made soon after he took the reins. The country’s economy has remained debilitated.

 

North Korea is suffering from the triple whammy of international economic sanctions, the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters. The state of the secluded nation is clearly far from what Kim envisioned when he came to power.

 

It seems to be a fact that he has been pursuing a reform agenda. This may reflect the impact on his thinking of his experience of studying in Switzerland in his boyhood and being exposed to the taste of freedom.

 

Kim Jong Il, hard-pressed to deal with the risks posed to his regime by repercussions from the end of the Cold War, established a dictatorship based on opaque procedures.

 

In contrast, his son has created a formal policymaking process for decisions through conferences.

 

In another notable change, the current North Korean leader has introduced some elements of a market economy. He has given businesses and farms greater freedom in using their own ingenuity for better management.   

 

As a result, transactions in markets, called “jangmadang,” have grown as well as the number of people who use smartphones and other digital devices, albeit under strict government control over information.

 

But Kim Jong Un has done little to tackle the dilemma of secluded isolation. Highly nervous about the influx of information and foreign cultures, which he fears could shake his grip on power, he has cracked down harder on South Korean TV dramas and introduced harsher punishments for watching them.

 

The biggest obstacle to his efforts to achieve policy goals is the country’s nuclear and missile programs. He has been forging ahead with the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, flying in the face of international criticisms and warnings.

 

Since he became the country’s leader, Pyongyang has conducted four nuclear tests and fired off more than 90 ballistic missiles and other flying objects.

 

He has been racing to develop weapons of mass destruction not only to enhance deterrence and strengthen his administration’s hand in negotiations with the United States but also to show off his power and authority to the domestic audience.

 

But Pyongyang has paid a huge price for this strategy. The three rounds of talks Kim held with U.S. President Donald Trump have led to no progress on the issue of the economic sanctions.

 

One fact has remained unchanged over the last decade. North Korea can never extricate itself from its hardships without taking actions toward denuclearization.

 

Kim is still in his late 30s. It is safe to assume that his rule will continue for years to come barring a serious health problem.

 

Japan, the United States and South Korea will have no choice but to seek dialogue with the current North Korean regime.

 

Policymakers of these countries should keep one important lesson in mind. Underestimating the staying power of the reclusive regime would be dangerous.

 

Many pundits predicted that the regime would collapse sooner or later or it would knuckle under to intensified international pressure. But all these prognostications have proven wrong and only compounded the challenge of dealing with North Korea.

 

While it is necessary to take a tough stance to North Korea’s outrageous actions, these countries need to explore opportunities for fruitful negotiations through diplomatic efforts based on a cool-headed assessment of the situation surrounding Pyongyang.

 

Using a combination of soft and hard approaches backed by a willingness to learn from mistakes is the only effective strategy for untangling the knot of the challenges involved.

 

–The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 18

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