The Kim Jong Un-Donald Trump summit in Singapore, which everyone likes to call historic, was more theatrical than substantial. For all the buzz and Trump’s bravado about his deal-making ability, Kim remains uncommitted to any detailed denuclearization plan after all.
Perhaps the biggest accomplishment was getting Kim out of his comfort zone and exposing him to the wonders of economic prosperity. The Singapore trip is the longest overseas journey Kim has made since he took power in 2011, and he seemed to like it quite a bit. He made an unexpected public appearance for a nighttime excursion and reportedly marvelled at the beauty of Singapore. He even agreed to take a selfie with Singapore’s foreign minister.
Kim in the selfie is a seemingly normal man enjoying everything a hyper-materialistic society that Singapore is has to offer — a world-class skyline filled with the coolest-looking skyscrapers; the utmost VIP treatment from a nation eager to capitalize on his presence and ready to ignore all the horrific things he has done; and cheers from an entertainment-seeking crowd that saw him as a rock star of sorts, rather than a brutal dictator. And ever so aptly, this image was captured and publicized in a fashion that is symbolic of the awesome technological products of capitalism.
That Kim embraced the public selfie moment suggests his open-mindedness about engagement. And possibly, hidden in his smile in the photo is a sense of envy — envy at the affluence of Singapore and its people. Surrounded by all the wonderful things money can buy, maybe he was asking himself why his own country can’t stop being weird and poor when the rest of the world is reaping benefits of capitalism. The selfie may well be a representation of this mixed state of mind that could nudge Kim into accepting new realities and values to narrow the economic gap between North Korea and the outside world.
Of course, no one can read Kim’s mind, and visibility into North Korea is limited. But there already have been signs of more openness and economic modernization in the country, according to accounts by some journalists, including Japanese freelance photographer Ari Hatsuzawa, who has visited North Korea several times. He says he has witnessed some significant changes over the past four years. People dress better. Men and women do boy friend-girl friend things in public. Car traffic in Pyongyang has almost tripled from four years ago. Most notably, the regime has allowed the creation of a high-income class by turning a blind eye to people amassing wealth through trade or real estate transactions, even though letting any individual get disproportionately rich goes against socialist principles.
All this points to Kim’s desire to achieve a degree of economic success. And that’s great. Nothing will prevent a war on the Korean peninsula more effectively than a strong desire in Kim to turn North Korea into a functioning, prosperous economy. For a Kim concerned with economic development, economic sanctions would be truly painful, and hence they would actually work as leverage in negotiations on disarmament. Also, it would be in his own interest to refrain from doing anything self-destructive, say, starting a war. Someone with something to lose is far less scary than someone with nothing to lose.
Kim’s participation in the selfie exercise may have been a spur-of-the moment decision, but if it was, he may have just spontaneously offered the world a more tangible reason to be hopeful than the fluffy promises he gave to Trump.