From Hurling Abuses to Summit Diplomacy: What Factors are Driving Kim Jong-un?

Divya Tyagi, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies

Kim Jong-un’s new year speech (saehae yeonseol) kick-started an accelerated pace of political shifts in the Korean Peninsula. With the emphasis on creating a ‘peaceful environment’ on the Peninsula, Kim surprised the world with his turnabout from hurling abuses to proposing peace talks. But the question arises, why has he changed his stance and what could be the possible reason behind this sudden shift in Kim’s approach.

If we take lessons from history then, the Panmunjom declaration might just be yet another disappointment. The summit of 27 April 2018 was the third Inter-Korean summit after the Korean war. During the summit of 2000, images of Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il (father of Kim Jong-un) shaking hands and clinking champagne glasses covered the news, as the two leaders signed a “broad agreement to work toward peace and reunification.”[1] The second summit came in 2007 after North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. Similarly, in hopes of finding a negotiated solution regarding North Korea’s pulling out of Non-Proliferation Treaty (2003), six-party negotiations were initiated which again came to a stalemate after Pyongyang pulled out in 2009. So, there is a sense of deja-vu as North-Korea once again shows the willingness to come to the negotiating table with the concerned parties. The script of the present scenario can be seen as a repetition of the past but, the motive behind the benevolent approach of Kim can be speculated to have manifold reasons.

Breathing Space from the Strangulating Sanctions

Economic sanctions are not a rarity for North Korea after it conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. These sanctions were tightened in 2017 and with it’s all weather ally, China, actively supporting this time, compelled Kim Jong-un to embark on his 2018 ‘charm offensive’. There have been glimpses in the new year’s speech of Kim and the 2018 Parliamentary budget report indicating the damage the sanctions have made on the country’s economy. The North Korean supreme leader in his new year’s speech alluded that sanctions had affected the country’s economy. Likewise, the Premier of North Korea, Pak Pong Ju’s speech during the 6th session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) on 11 April 2018 mentioned ‘externally imposed obstacles’ twice, referring to “unprecedented massive challenges” and “vicious sanctions and pressure manoeuvres.” Both leaders acknowledged that economic sanctions were strangulating the North Korean economy, and that might have compelled Kim to rethink his approach, towards its southern neighbour in particular.

Victory on the Nuclear Front

Five years after announcing his Byungjin Policy in 2013, Kim Jong-un has declared North Korea as a nuclear state. Byungjin policy is his signature national strategy and, the successor to his father’s Songun policy (1994). Under Byungjin, Kim pledged to the success of North Korea’s parallel pursuit of a nuclear deterrence and economic development. Now that he claims the successful completion of making North Korea a nuclear state, shifting his focus to economic development seems the only logical choice. The transition of North Korea into a de facto nuclear state has also increased the confidence of Kim in global power standing. The idea of negotiating on an equal footing because of the nuclear weapons can also be considered as a valid motivating factor for Kim to shift to diplomatic negotiations, and aim to pressurize the opposing party agree to his favourable terms.

Laying the Groundwork for Reforms?

Kim Jong-un has in the past tried the ‘stick’ version of diplomacy by hurling abuses and threatening the US and maybe now, equipped with a sense of security because of the nuclear arsenal, he is shifting to ‘carrot’ version of diplomacy, desiring the end result to be, the acceptance of North Korean regime. In his six years of rule, if anything, Kim Jong-un has proved that he has ‘plans’. Starting from Byungjin Policy, aggressive pursuance of nuclear weapons and eradicating any possible competition, Kim is strategically bringing reforms in the regime beneath the guise of continuity. The survival of the regime is of paramount importance to the leader and Kim knows it can be achieved only when the regime’s legitimacy is not under external threat.

One thing that can be said with certainty is that the Panmunjom summit was definitely a historic and impressive day in the history of the Peninsula. From smiling faces of both the leaders, to the promises of a “new era of peace” (pyeonghwaui saeloun sidae) the summit was a success in terms of public diplomacy. However, with big powers like China and United States involved, shaping a new era of peace will not be easy, especially when the objectives of the involved parties are not in tandem with each other’s. The difference of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” stated by South Korea in accordance with US, and Kim Jong-un’s “phased and synchronised denuclearisation” can and probably will be the cause of friction in the momentum of this positive development.

This budding North-South bonhomie will be further put to test in the upcoming Kim-Trump meeting, to be held in Singapore next month. With both Kim and Trump having a flair for unpredictability and aggressive approach, it would be interesting to observe how the two leaders work towards ‘solving’ decades-long conflict.


[1] The two leaders adopted a joint peace declaration after the three-day meeting, agreeing to work towards independent unification and humanitarian and economic cooperation. For more, see:

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