After weeks of uncertainty about the planned US-North Korea summit, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signed a “comprehensive” document. Kim claimed that “the world will see a major change”, while Trump described him as “a very talented man” who “loved his country very much”, and appeared willing to invite him to visit the White House.
The document apparently embodies four pillars: first, the two sides commit to establishing “new … relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity”; second, they will “join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula”; third, North Korea reaffirms the “April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration …[and] commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula;” and fourth, they “commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified”.
Follow-up negotiations are also planned under the agreement.
The possibility of a deal was signalled by Kim Jong-un at the beginning of the summit when he said, “The old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles on our way forward, but we’ve overcome all of them, and we are here today.”
However, the text of the document does not contain much that is new. It merely recites already documented positions. Its real significance lies in the context in which it was signed and the accompanying statements by the two leaders.
In this sense, what “old prejudices” is Kim referring to and what “change” is the world likely to see? Are the two leaders simply promising to stop using characterisations such as “little Rocketman” or “mentally deranged US dotard” and avoid threatening to unleash “fire and fury”?
Or is the North Korean leader referring to deeper, older prejudices that have held back his country for decades? If so, is it really possible for him to overcome them and still stay in power?
The answer to these questions depends on a good understanding of how central these “prejudices” are to the very raison d’etre of Kim Jong-un-ism and his regime’s survival.
If a transition towards the Chinese model is what the future holds, Trump might be doing China a massive favour.
His grandfather, Kim Il-sung, instituted a cult of personality in addition to a centralised system of self-reliance and extreme nationalism – “juche”. This ideology requires North Koreans to build their country by relying on their own resources under the guidance of the supreme leader. Following his death, his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, devised another doctrine to consolidate power, “songun”, or military first.
Kim Jong-un clearly embraces this doctrine – as he must to survive. In 2013, he described songun as a “revolutionary idea” that his father built by “the strengthening of the KPA [Korean People’s Army] … as the buttress, the main force, of our revolution and achieved the historic victory in the grim anti-imperialist, anti-US showdown in defence of the country’s security and socialism by training the KPA to be the army of the leader boundlessly faithful to the cause …”
Surely, juche and songun qualify as old prejudices and represent obstacles to cooperation. Will North Korea jettison such core values?
If you think these are not enough, consider the “Ten Principles in Establishing Party’s Monolithic Ideological System,” which remains the manifesto for the regime. Article 2.1 states “The Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung is a genius of the revolution, the sun of the people and a legendary hero whom we must respect unendingly, revere eternally and come to with the greatest happiness and glory …”
Article 4.3 commits people to “Unconditionally accept, treat as a non-negotiable condition, and decide everything” upon Kim Il Sung’s “instructions” and in every act think only about his “greatness”. Further, article 4.10 pledges to “Fight with all one’s will against anti-Party and anti-revolutionary thinking trends that have its origin in capitalistic ideas …” and retain “the purity of revolutionary thought and Juche ideas of the Great Leader.”
In other words, the “old prejudices” that are obstacles to cooperation are intrinsic to the North Korean state. If Kim Jong-un has to overcome them, he will have to accept the prospect of a much-diminished role in the future.
He knows that if North Koreans are told that there is a way to prosperity other than through self-reliance and that the imperialist US approach is not so bad after all, this risks undermining the regime.
Citizens might ask for justice for past wrongs and seek to overthrow the supreme leader because the entire edifice upon which his rule rests would be invalid. And there is plenty for Kim to fear. North Korea has a record of horrific human rights abuses. Tens of thousands are in prison and disappearances, executions, torture, rape, and forced labour are widespread.
No rational leader would risk being held accountable for such crimes. The best-case scenario is that Kim Jong-un will seek a soft landing away from the Ten Principles and songun rather than a crash-and-burn outcome. That might mean a transition away from self-reliance and towards opening up the economy while maintaining pervasive social controls a la China in the era of Deng Xiaoping.
Even that carries significant personal risks to himself and the regime. Therefore, much like China, Kim is likely to retain his military capability. In such a scenario, Tiananmen Square-style events might occur. As all the historical evidence shows, once people experience freedom, they are reluctant to accept servitude.
Rights beget demands for more rights. This begs the obvious question: will the West stand by if such a crackdown occurs when North Korea opens up and its citizens demand more?
So, the sensible conclusion is that Kim Jong-un’s idea of overcoming old prejudices hints at a much more limited conception of obstacles to North Korea’s integration into the global economy. The farthest extreme of what is possible is post-Deng China: an open economy governed by a dictatorship.
If a transition towards the Chinese model is what the future holds, Trump might be doing China a massive favour. Kim Jong-un will naturally seek guidance from the Chinese to script such an outcome.
Once North Korea opens up and sanctions are lifted, Chinese enterprises will seize the opportunity to secure highly lucrative deals – from building infrastructure to supplying weapons to exploiting North Korea’s cheap labour for its own purposes. This will not advance US interests.
In the end, if Trump succeeds in opening the door, his biggest challenge will be to stop China from coming in after him to steal the family jewels. That will be a presidency-defining transaction for the “Dealer-in-Chief”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.