North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un is Alive: is There Still a Chance for Peace?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made news this week by simply appearing at an event. There had been a great deal of discussion and rumors that he had died or was brain dead. But Kim visited a fertilizer plant with only a mysterious mark on his wrist. Given his family’s history of heart disease the mark was likely a right radial artery puncture, which is performed to get a blood sample for analysis for a cardiovascular procedure. His mysterious disappearance has reinserted North Korea and Trump’s negotiations back into the news once again.

Diplomacy With North Korea

Despite the breaking news of Kim’s reappearance, the fundamentals of North Korean foreign policy haven’t changed. President Donald Trump is focusing on the effects of coronavirus and reelection, which puts him and US policy in a holding pattern. This diplomacy involves several intractable problems with little immediate solutions. North Korea is armed with nuclear weapons, heavily fortified and is a hedgehog of artillery and other weapon systems within easy range of Seoul. All of which makes military options less effective and the risk for retaliation high.

Boosting South Korea

The US has decreased the threat by placing missile defense systems in South Korea. The US can further reduce the threat by removing American personnel from South Korea and informing South Korea government officials that they should prepare by moving their people into bomb shelters and safer locations. These latter factors are important to watch for, since they are good indications that a strike by the US is imminent.

But there is an avenue for progress tied to the relationship between Trump and Kim. The exchange of notes in the past summit didn’t lead to any breakthroughs, but seems to indicate greater trust and maybe even friendship between the two leaders. Before the first summit the Korean Peninsula was predicted by many analysts to be the next place for war. But now there is reasonable hope of a deal and an unlikely friendship between the two leaders despite the different stances they have on two key issues.

Taking Off Sanctions?

The first major issue included revolves around the removal of sanctions. North Korea argues they would have frozen the research at the Yongbyan site in exchange for a partial loosening of sanctions. The fact that North Korea is so keen on having sanctions lifted suggests they are meaningful despite failing to change the North Korean regime or stop their program, as will be discussed below.

The other key point besides sanctions was the gradual decommission of their nuclear program. North Korea has promised freezes in the program, particularly around the key Yongbyan nuclear reactor. But this didn’t satisfy the United States in the most recent negotiations. The deal under former President Bill Clinton, for example, shutdown that site, but it was rather inexpensive and relatively easy for them to reactivate it at a later time. This is probably why President Trump wasn’t ready to accept that concession as meaningful, or as reason enough to at least partially loosen the sanctions.

Can Great Leaders Shift History Despite Underlying Factors?

The high-level negotiations represent the great person view of history, but the underlying economics most closely resembles the larger factors involved. The great person view of history often focuses on the actions of key leaders such as Reagan and Gorbachev in the driving events. It is countered by a discussion of larger forces like economic trends.  We see the interplay between both of those models here because high level negotiations can lead to improvements, but the matters discussed are often the result of larger trends like long term sanctions.

While those sanctions haven’t yet incentivized Kim to shut down the program, they are still painful which is why they are ready to make concessions to have them partially lifted. The average citizen in North Korea is both poor and malnourished, some analysts say they are even starving, and even Chairmen Kim can’t live as luxuriously as he would like with sanctions on key goods.

Is Change Still Possible?

These sanctions act as an important tool to produce changes in the regime, or regime change itself. Their removal also acts as an important carrot. But their inability to produce change over the last 25 years has produced a need and opening for interpersonal diplomacy, or the great person model of foreign policy. If impersonal economic factors don’t affect Kim, and he seems indifferent to the suffering of his people, perhaps a friendship and meeting with Trump might produce change.

Many years from now and especially if Kim decides to change, then this event will be viewed as a “tear down this wall” moment. But even then, the long-term economic suffering of North Korea will leave Trump’s critics plenty of reasons to argue that Trump didn’t affect the US-North Korea equation.

In the end, Trump’s focus on politics and helping guide America through the virus allows those long-term forces to work in North Korea. That and the combination of high-level diplomacy such as Trump welcoming Kim back via Twitter represent the best hope for a North Korean breakthrough.