News broke in early January that North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, is in hiding and reported is seeking asylum in the West.
Is Jo Song Gil making his escape for
personal reasons? Or is it an indication that things are as bad as ever in
Pyongyang? Whatever the reason, his defection could impact the ongoing
negotiations. He could, for example, share sensitive information with the US
and South Korea about the real denuclearisation situation in North Korea – and
this could make Kim Jong Un less willing to engage.
There are other factors to consider,
too, not least North Korea’s sharp economic downturn. This has, in fact, given
many North Koreans wider access to information from outside the country,
partially thanks to a growing number of defectors communicating with those who
remain and the outside world.
Kim Jong Un’s “equal emphasis” (Byungjin)
policy, which focuses on both military and economic development, has also given
impetus to his willingness to talk with Moon and Trump. But even if the
willingness is there, North Korea’s regime cannot upend nearly 70 years of
history in a day. It will be a long process.
The truth is that Kim Jong-un cannot
abandon his nuclear programme until he can see an alternative way of
guaranteeing the security of his regime. After all, North Korea’s nuclear
programme has so far worked well as a bargaining chip in international
negotiations – although the current UN sanctions are an exception. Indeed,
North Korea’s nuclear threats and long-range missiles have strengthened the
county’s hand against the US, while without them, North Korea has almost
nothing to offer as a concession.
Nor should we forget the role the
North Korean media plays. By showing images of Kim Jong Un shaking hands with
world leaders, it has become part of his survival strategy, bolstering his
strongman image among both ordinary North Koreans and his government.
2019 may yet bring a way forward.
But unless there is a foundation of mutual understanding, defectors such as Jo
Song Gil may offer the only tangible insight into what’s really going on in