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 North Korea.