Keeping Summit Hopes Alive Suggests Kim Jong-un May Need a Deal

 In U.S.

SEOUL, South Korea — Ever since Kim Jong-un took over as the young, untested ruler of North Korea seven years ago, he has promised his country a future free from deprivation.

In his first speech as leader, he vowed that North Koreans, millions of whom starved during a famine in the 1990s, would never again have to tighten their belts. Last year, he apologized to the nation for failing to live up to that pledge, expressing how “anxious and remorseful” it made him.

Then, this year, he proclaimed a new shift to North Korea’s 25 million people: Now that the nation possessed a nuclear arsenal, it could change gears and start building a prosperous economy, after years of international sanctions.

So when President Trump on Thursday abruptly canceled their much anticipated summit meeting on June 12, the North Korean response was remarkably diplomatic and cordial, holding open the hope that the meeting could still take place, after all.

Mr. Kim’s stated desire to continue engaging with Mr. Trump — even after such a high-profile snub — does not necessarily mean the North Korean leader is willing to renounce his nuclear arsenal, the primary American demand.

No matter how painful sanctions may be, analysts say, Mr. Kim would be unwilling to give up his nuclear weapons unless an accord left him feeling completely safe without them. The security of his family-run regime is a nonnegotiable priority.

North Korea has emphasized that it wants security guarantees and will not trade its nuclear arsenal for economic benefits alone. It has also rejected assertions that it has been pressured into talks because of the pain of sanctions, adding that it does not expect help from the United States in pursuing economic development.

Indeed, the North Korean economy has been growing as much as 1 to 5 percent annually under Mr. Kim’s rule, because of a limited embrace of market forces by his government and, until late last year, loopholes in the multiple rounds of sanctions adopted by the United Nations Security Council.

Still, his apparent willingness to continue diplomatic efforts does suggest that Mr. Kim, 34, may be under pressure to satisfy rising expectations in North Korea for economic gains and shake off the painful grip of sanctions.

While largely depicted as a nuclear provocateur in the outside world, Mr. Kim is determined to be the face of a modern and more open North Korea at home. He has erected new buildings and repainted old ones in Pyongyang, the capital, attended a concert by a South Korean girl band and let a state orchestra play American pop music.

Mr. Kim has also sent party officials to China to learn its economic policies, and has even admitted to other failures during his supposedly faultless leadership, like a botched satellite launch in 2012. When he met with South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, last month and invited him to Pyongyang, he asked Mr. Moon to fly there because North Korea’s roads and trains were in such “embarrassing” condition.

The contrasts between the North and South are particularly stark. North Korea generates a tiny fraction — less than 5 percent, by some estimates — of the electricity that South Korea does, leaving passengers stranded for hours in immobilized trains because of widespread power shortages, according to defectors from the country.

Recent visitors say Pyongyang looks more colorful and prosperous than it did a decade ago, with stores stocked with imported and domestically produced foods. But conditions outside the capital remain dismal, with widespread malnutrition among children and nursing mothers, according to United Nations relief agencies.

The most recent round of sanctions in the American-led “maximum pressure” campaign has undercut North Korea’s ability to earn hard currency needed to buy imports. Since September, the United Nations Security Council has banned all major North Korean exports, including coal, iron ore, seafood and textiles. If enforced fully, the sanctions could eliminate 90 percent of the country’s total exports.

North Korean exports to China, which account for more than 90 percent of the North’s international trade, fell by one-third to $1.65 billion last year, with volumes plunging by as much as 95 percent in recent months. The United Nations sanctions also cut the North’s imports of refined petroleum products by 90 percent, causing gasoline prices to double.

Many mines and factories have closed for lack of raw materials or export orders, according to South Korean and Japanese news organizations.

“Kim has perfected the most dramatic makeover within a few months,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a professor of Korean studies at Tufts University. “He’s gone from pariah to statesman, from madman to gracious, well-prepared leader who knows his brief.”

Some analysts said Mr. Trump’s initial decision to scrap the summit meeting was a hiccup before a return to dialogue.

Others said that if the two nations failed to get diplomacy back on track quickly, Mr. Kim could feel growing pressure to resume weapons tests to pressure the United States and “salvage his fallen status at home and abroad,” said Cheon Seong-whun, an analyst at the Asan institute in Seoul.

While Mr. Kim may wield tremendous power, his longevity as North Korea’s undisputed leader is not guaranteed.

Mr. Kim’s engagement with Mr. Trump may be unsettling to senior figures in North Korea’s military who worry that he could, in fact, relinquish the country’s nuclear arsenal, which he has called a “treasured sword” that ensures the country’s survival.

At the same time, Mr. Kim’s failure to meet the expectations he has raised for greater prosperity at home could anger the people who already have had a taste of a more affluent life.

“The group around Kim that are living reasonably well and benefiting from the way he’s kind of running things is relatively large,” said Scott Seaman, a Korea analyst at the Eurasia Group, a consultancy in Washington. “That could mean you don’t want to tick it off.”

Like many dictators, Mr. Seaman said, “This is a guy who goes to sleep at night not knowing whether he’s going to wake up.”

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