HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - North Korean despot Kim Jong Un is suddenly playing nice. Having thawed relations with Seoul during the winter Olympics, this week he kowtowed to Chinese President Xi Jinping. He’s open to reopening negotiations with the United States and talking “de-nuclearization”. This could be a cheap ploy to get sanctions lifted, after which Kim will go straight back to extortion. But the young leader might actually be ready to start putting his country on a more normal development path.
The politically canny Kim had every reason to distrust China, to want his own nuclear deterrent to keep America at bay, and to shore up his initially weak domestic position, where he was surrounded by older relatives and generals. However, Kim is now secure at home and abroad. It is in his interests, therefore, to smile his way out of sanctions. And there are reasons to hope Kim might go further.
He has already tolerated, even encouraged, a degree of economic liberalisation since taking power. Markets for household goods have developed, and central planning has weakened. Ration coupons have gradually been replaced by cash, including hard currency. Seoul reckons the Hermit Kingdom’s economic growth hit 3.9 percent in 2016, a 17-year high, despite sanctions. The softening is partly an acceptance of reality. Kim can no longer blind his people - who are poor but literate - to China’s development, nor explain away South Korea’s wealth.
Kim also held a party congress in 2016, the first since 1980. That suggests he could be prepared to let the system evolve into a garden-variety Stalinist government. That would be a step-up from the current cult-like regime, enabling more rational policy.
If this rogue state is preparing to become a Chinese-style developmental autocracy, freeing up private property and putting infrastructure before weapons, all of Asia would enjoy the peace dividend. It has already benefited South Korea; Kim’s pivot appears to have convinced U.S. President Donald Trump to settle for minor concessions during trade negotiations. It has always paid to be cynical when it comes to the Kim family, but the world should be open to a genuine change in attitude.
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