Kim eager to take nuclear talks forward
Both the United States and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea are busy preparing for a second summit to be held between their leaders at the end of this month.
Both sides are keeping their lips sealed about the negotiations, even US President Donald Trump is refraining from talking about them on Twitter, which means career bureaucrats－with the help of leaders and their core advisers－have been taking the US-DPRK negotiations forward. Such a manner of engagement may make it possible to avoid disruptions and help produce substantial results.
However, the silence maintained by both the US and the DPRK has given rise to much speculation. Some people have criticized the process, suggesting the two sides are just "putting on a show", instead of seriously trying to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
As far as plugging loopholes or preventing digressions in negotiations are concerned, such criticism could prompt the two sides to firmly keep the denuclearization process on track. On the other hand, badmouthing based on stereotypes, or attempting to interrupt negotiations by using public opinion will only impair the denuclearization process.
In general, however, the criticism has a basic logic－the fundamental goal of sovereign states being survival and security, the DPRK cannot be expected to forsake nuclear weapons. Yet the same logic could lead to another outcome－once the survival and security of a country comes under tremendous threat because it possesses nuclear weapons, it may forsake nuclear weapons in order to survive. After all, possessing nuclear weapons is not the ultimate goal of the country－survival is.
The positive aspects of continuing talks
Most assessments of the DPRK nuclear issue are made from the perspective of major country rivalry and geopolitics. In the absence of fundamental changes in the structural environment, there seems to be no reason for positive change regarding the DPRK nuclear issue. But by adhering to such a view, we risk ignoring the factors influencing the DPRK itself－the most important player in the issue.
Aside from the latest changes in the Trump administration's DPRK policy, the DPRK's domestic issues are an important driver of possible, significant changes on the nuclear issue.
First, the DPRK urgently needs to change its current "isolated status" to take the peninsula denuclearization process forward. Foreign appraisals of the DPRK have always been based on the inherent premise that it is a closed nation, which prevents foreign observers fully understanding the country's policy options. Based on such an idea, foreign observers assume the DPRK is able and willing to endure long-term international sanctions, isolation and blockade in order to develop nuclear weapons, and that it is impossible for the country to further reform and open up. Some foreign observers even believe that reform and opening up could pose a threat to the DPRK government in the future.
Not always a closed, isolated economy
Apart from its close political and economic ties with China, the Soviet Union (and later Russia), and East European countries, the DPRK maintained close economic and trade relations with Western countries in the 1970s. In fact, loans from and trade with Western countries once accounted for half of the DPRK's overall foreign debts and trade.
During the Cold War and in the past more than a decade, the DPRK's reliance on foreign trade (foreign trade as a proportion of GDP) has hovered above 30 percent, higher than China's and Japan's. Foreign aid, foreign debts and foreign trade were the key factors of the "DPRK economic miracle" during the Cold War, as well as an important factor supporting current DPRK economic progress.
Diplomatically, Pyongyang has been active on the world stage, and its top leader Kim Jong-un doesn't want to be isolated from the rest of the world. Actually, the adroitness Kim has displayed on the world stage as a national leader is rooted in the DPRK's diplomatic tradition.
World underestimates DPRK's urge to reform
The rest of the world has underestimated the DPRK's willingness to open up its economy to the outside world, and the negative impact of possessing nuclear weapons on the country. Moreover, its nuclear pursuit has resulted in international isolation and sanctions－as a result, it has lagged behind neighboring countries, especially the Republic of Korea, when it comes to global competition.
Kim's policies have had an important impact on the peninsula denuclearization process. Although Kim's policy of pursuing economic construction and nuclear weapons simultaneously looks similar to that of the simultaneous pursuit of economic construction and national defense during the Kim Il-sung administration, as well as Kim Jong-il's "military first" policy, they are fundamentally different.
The DPRK's Rodong Sinmun newspaper has said the real advantage of the new policy is that developing nuclear weapons is cheaper than making conventional weapons, freeing up funds for economic construction and improving people's livelihoods. Kim has enhanced reforms and set up more than 20 development zones nationwide in accordance with his vision of and preparation for the DPRK's future development model.
Meanwhile, the DPRK has also improved its international image through a series of recent gestures on denuclearization, which have been in stark contrast to its actions even one year ago when it was shunned by the rest of the world for conducting frequent nuclear and missile tests.
Such benign interaction indicates positive changes in the DPRK's views about the outside world and the progress of denuclearization process. If the DPRK backpedals on denuclearization, its international credibility and national interests will suffer seriously, which in turn will constrain its policy options.
Judging by the DPRK's domestic factors, the denuclearization process could see progress beyond the expectations of the majority of people.
The author is an assistant research fellow at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.