Editor’s Note: Thae Yong Ho was serving as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom when he chose to defect with his family to South Korea in 2016. Following the recent release of his book, “Cypher of the Third-Floor Secretariat,” and his departure from the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), he has committed himself to improving the outlook for those still living in the DPRK. His current efforts focus on information sharing and the power of education to effect change.
As one of the highest-ranking diplomats to ever defect, Thae has teamed up with Daily NK and its broader media consortium, Unification Media Group, for a weekly series to share his unparalleled insight into the North Korean system, ethos, and strategic thinking, while unpacking his vision for peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Transcript (filmed on July 4, 2018):
It has been 2 months since the inter-Korea summit and 3 weeks since the US-North Korea summit, but North Korea continues to drag along the process of denuclearization.
Mr. Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State of US, will visit North Korea from 5th of July. Nonetheless, nobody knows how the steps of denuclearization are going to fold out.
Through the inter-Korea and US-North Korea summit, it seems that Kim Jong Un has succeeded to change US and South Korea’s original principle of ‘denuclearization first then the dialogue’ to the format of ‘trust first then denuclearization’.
No-one can deny that Kim Jong Un’s strategy of using his ‘Mad Man Tactics’ in the nuclear and ICBM arms race, making the US and South Korea thirsty for peace and eventually covering the demands for denuclearization using peace initiatives, has indeed achieved its initial success.
Now, Kim Jong Un is trying to delay the denuclearization process by applying ‘Defocusing Tactics’ such as the repatriation of the remains of US soldiers, the closing of a missile engine test site and accelerating inter-Korean relations in order to gradually reduce economic sanctions.
But it will not always be so easy for Kim Jong Un to sell his ‘Defocusing Tactics.’
As we have been able to see in this World Cup, the first goal during the first half does not always brings victory to that team.
Time is not on Kim Jong Un’s side.
Nowadays, the North Korean media is encouraging its people to march forward for the great celebration of September 9th, the founding day of North Korea. At the same time, Kim Jong Un is paying site visits to Kalma Marine tourism construction sites and the China-North Korea border areas in order to boost economic construction.
These aforementioned economic policies are only implementable with better engagement with the outside world.
Naturally, Kim Jong Un’s domestic policy is now moving towards dependency on external engagement.
Without the help of China and South Korea, Kim Jong Un’s current economic policy will struggle to be successful.
As for the North Korean people- they expect that the latest summits will normalize the export of coal, mineral ore and sea food; and halt the return of overseas North Korean workers.
According to a North Korean source, these kinds of expectations has boosted Kim Jong Un’s popularity in the country.
When Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were in power, the popularity of the Supreme Leader was unshakeable.
The fact that the Supreme Leader’s popularity rises with the improvement of the economy and people’s lives, and falls with the implementation of economic sanctions proves that North Korea is no longer isolated and separated from the outside world.
Kim Jong Un is well aware that over the next few months his popularity will be dependent on the lifting of economic sanctions and the improvement of the lives of the North Korean people.
Since the summits, both the US and South Korean governments have made various confidence-building measures based on the agreements with Kim Jong Un.
If Kim Jong Un continues to delay the denuclearization process by only focusing on side issues, then it won’t be long until anti-Kim Jong Un sentiments rise again in America and South Korea.
This can be seen by the recently-introduced ‘North Korea Policy Oversight Act of 2018;’ a bi-partisan effort which led to a legislation that requires a report on the negotiation process for denuclearization every 30 days.
I imagine that Kim Jong Un is now picturing a scene where he extends an invitation to President Moon Jae In to come to Pyongyang this autumn, which will defuse the demands for denuclearization while raising his popularity again.
If Kim Jong Un wants to sustain his popularity in North Korea, he should at least respond to the US and South Korean governments with good will by delivering a basic road map of North Korea’s denuclearization process.
At the same time, the US and South Korea should make it clear to North Korea that they will not accept any denuclearization process without a concrete timeline and no economic sanctions will be lifted unless there is a genuine sign of denuclearization from North Korea.