The 12 June summit saw Kim score a major PR boost; Trump went to the table with a dictator and got nothing. It’s hard to see Singapore as anything other than a DPRK win. Why? Because, primarily, the North has been normalised in many people’s eyes by Trump’s treatment of them as essentially a normal nation with a particular problem for America (nuclear weapons).
So let’s take a step back. Nuclear weapons were only ever half of Kim Jong-un’s Byungjin policy which dates back to March 2013. Byungjin (‘Parallel Development’) was described as ‘a new strategic line on carrying out economic construction and building nuclear armed forces simultaneously’ – i.e. an attempt to restart North Korea’s stalled economy and raise living standards while continuing to develop a nuclear arsenal. Simon Tisdall, in the UK’s Observer newspaper, succinctly described Byungjin as a policy of ‘love and fear’. The North has nuclear weapons and has normalised itself to many (particularly Beijing) through a summit with Trump and should now look to economic reconstruction. Admittedly, the tougher UN sanctions regime hasn’t helped, but Trump has.
Back on June 2, responding to questions about the upcoming summit, Trump referred to the costs and implementation of economic reform in the North – “that’s their neighborhood; it’s not our neighborhood.” This was a crucial moment – he included Japan and South Korea but we all know it is China that has the contacts and plans to do this while absenting the US from any involvement.
As my book North Korea shows, Beijing has long urged North Korea to reform along Chinese lines. They have the blueprint – a version of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up for the North. Kim Jong-il always resisted Beijing’s advice and tried to reform the economy himself in 2002, a plan which crashed and burned within weeks (see my books for the structural reasons why these reforms failed and could again, even with better planning and more determination from Pyongyang). No serious full-scale attempt at economic reform has been tried since.
But there are multiple reasons to believe that Kim Jong-un may attempt some sort of reform and that China would be closely involved. Now the summit is over and nothing serious achieved, Kim may be able to begin a new process of economic reform in the DPRK with China’s investment and assistance, perhaps supported by encouragement from Seoul, and get to keep his nuclear weapons programme intact. With serious Chinese help (in what we used to call a ‘fraternal’ way) and improvements, Kim would see no mileage in further aggressive or provocative missiles tests.
With the Americans declaring a ‘hands off’ stance the Chinese have the reform inducement to encourage him – it’ll be all perestroika and no glasnost. As in China the Party and its leader stays firmly in control; policy is driven by nationalism rather than Marxist-Leninist ideology – in short, regime survival.
That may well be the legacy of Singapore.