World News

South Korea Hands Kim a Path to Prosperity on a USB Drive

Posted May 10, 2018 5:23 p.m. EDT

SEOUL, South Korea — For years, Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, has been cracking down on USB flash drives that activists smuggle into his isolated country to poison his people’s minds with outside influences, like South Korean K-pop music.

But last month, when he met with the South’s president, Moon Jae-in, Moon handed him a USB drive that contained quite a different message.

In charts and video clips, Moon’s memory stick laid out a “new economic map for the Korean Peninsula,” including new railways and power plants for the impoverished North, should Kim abandon his nuclear weapons, according to South Korean officials.

Moon based his sales pitch on the belief that Kim wants to become the North Korean equivalent of Deng Xiaoping, who oversaw the economic liberalization of China. In this view, Kim may be willing to transform his pariah state by trading in his nuclear arsenal for diplomatic and economic incentives he needs to achieve prosperity.

It is a premise that will be tested when President Donald Trump meets with Kim in a few weeks’ time. When Moon met with Kim on the inter-Korean border on April 27 to help set up the North Korea-U.S. summit, he handed over the USB drive to illustrate what benefits awaited Kim should he denuclearize.

“Kim Jong Un’s desire to develop his country’s economy is as strong as, and even stronger than, his desire for nuclear weapons,” said Lee Jong-seok, a former unification minister of South Korea. “But he knows he cannot achieve the kind of rapid economic growth in China that he envisions for his country while keeping his nuclear weapons — because of the sanctions.”

Skeptics doubt Kim’s xenophobic regime will ever surrender its nuclear deterrent.

But since the inter-Korean summit meeting, many South Koreans have started to believe that Kim is a “trustworthy” reformer, according to recent surveys. A growing number of South Korean analysts have also begun arguing that Kim wants to follow the model of the South’s own past military dictators who focused on economic prosperity, or that Kim has convinced himself from China’s experience that he can pursue economic growth while maintaining one-party rule.

Such a theory was much harder to sell just months ago, when the 34-year-old North Korean was more often depicted as a bloodthirsty dictator and nuclear provocateur.

Since taking power in 2011, Kim has executed scores of top officials, including his own uncle. He has also tested a hydrogen bomb and long-range missiles, claiming that he could hit the mainland United States with nuclear warheads.

Vilified as he was, however, Kim has also shown signs of being a reformer, granting farms and factories more autonomy, allowing more markets to open, and setting off a building boom in his showcase capital, Pyongyang. He exhorts his country to follow “international development trends” and “global standards” and even admits failing to deliver on his promise that his long-suffering people would “no longer have to tighten their belts.”

“My desires were burning all the time, but I spent the past year feeling anxious and remorseful for the lack of my ability,” Kim said in a nationally broadcast speech last year, a startling admission for a member of the family that has ruled North Korea with the help of a personality cult since its founding in 1948.

After meeting him, Moon called Kim “open-minded and practical.”

Nowhere is Kim’s dilemma better seen than in his policy of “byungjin,” or parallel advance, which seeks a nuclear arsenal and economic development simultaneously. Under that policy, Kim has rapidly developed his country’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, arguing that a nuclear deterrent would make his country feel secure enough to focus on rebuilding the economy. But the world has responded by imposing crippling sanctions.

“Kim Jong Un is at a crossroads,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, South Korea’s capital. “He could advance his nuclear weapons program further and face a deeper isolation and possible economic ruin. Or he could use it as a bargaining card to win normalized ties and a peace treaty with the United States and economic recovery.”

If Kim pursues the route of economic reform, energy and transport are the two areas where he most needs outside help. In his meeting with Moon, Kim admitted to the “embarrassing” condition of his roads and railways, South Korean officials said. Trains running on electricity remain North Korea’s main means of transport, carrying 90 percent of its cargo and 60 percent of its passenger traffic, according to Ahn Byung-min, a senior analyst at the South’s government-funded Korea Transport Institute. But its rail systems are so decrepit that its fastest train, which runs to the Chinese border from Pyongyang, travels at 28 mph. Other trains run at less than half that speed, Ahn said.

Lacking cash for oil imports, North Korea produces all its electricity from hydroelectric dams and coal-burning power plants. But the country’s power industry is trapped in a vicious cycle, energy experts say. Chronic electricity shortages make it difficult to produce coal and transport it to power plants. People in search of firewood for heat and cooking have denuded their hills, causing floods and droughts and making silt pile up at dams. That cuts down hydroelectric generation.

North Korea’s electricity generation amounts to only 4.4 percent of South Korea’s, according to Park Eun-jeong, an analyst at the South’s Korea Development Bank. The country prioritizes supplying electricity to lighting statues of Kim’s father and grandfather, who had ruled before him, while passengers wait for hours in trains unable to move because of power shortages, according to defectors from the country.

“Electricity is the Achilles’ heel for North Korea,” said Lee Jong-heon, an energy analyst in Seoul.

Moon’s proposal to modernize the North’s roads and railways and link them to the South’s is not just meant to help North Korea.

South Korean policymakers say that the two Koreas must first integrate their economies to make the eventual reunification less chaotic. They also envision building trans-Korean railways to find faster and cheaper routes to export South Korean goods to China, Russia and Europe, and bring Russian oil and gas into the South through pipelines for its power-hungry economy.

But that is unlikely to happen until the North denuclearizes.

In 2007, the two Koreas temporarily connected two short stretches of railway across their border, but further efforts to reconnect the two systems have been suspended amid rising tensions over the North’s nuclear program. In 2004, South Korea opened a joint industrial park in the North Korean town of Kaesong and sent electricity to run it. But the park was closed after the North’s nuclear test in 2016.

Now, with Kim reportedly willing to discuss denuclearization, there are renewed hopes in the South.

“Reunification can start with reconnecting energy and transport lines of the two Koreas,” Lee said.