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(US-NK summit) (News Focus) N.K. leader eyes image as reliable economic leader

Diplomacy 09:15 February 25, 2019

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Feb. 25 (Yonhap) -- Ahead of this week's summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un is hogging the global limelight, where he may seek to craft an image as a reliable leader for diplomatic and economic cooperation.

The Hanoi summit, set for Wednesday and Thursday, is expected to be another chance for Kim to carve out that image -- crucial for his push to ease Pyongyang's isolation, create diplomatic and business opportunities and rebuild its threadbare economy, analysts said Monday.

The second meeting with Trump is a culmination of the charm offensive that he launched early last year when he shifted his policy focus to the economy after he strengthened his hand with the declaration on the "completion of the state nuclear force" in November 2017.

"In the first several years since taking power, Kim prioritized tightening his grip on power through repressive measures with little heed to how he would be viewed by the outside audience," said Kim Tae-hyeong, a professor of political science at Soongsil University.

"Now stably ensconced on the North's throne, he apparently wants to show the world that he is a stable, normal interlocutor for diplomacy, while to the domestic audience, he is a modern, confident leader on the world stage," he added.

This image, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (Yonhap)

Since taking over the reclusive state upon the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011, his public persona had been associated mostly with his reign of terror, marked by the brutal execution of dissenters and potential rivals, including his uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013 -- not to mention the apparent assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in 2017.

His menacing rhetoric and saber-rattling against Seoul and Washington had raised fears of war and dampened hopes that the Swiss-educated young leader could reverse his country's provocative tack and move to lift it out of the economic doldrums.

But with crippling sanctions and deepening isolation, economic reality has been sinking in for the third-generation hereditary ruler keen on building his own legacy rather than riding on the coattails of his late grandfather and national founder Kim Il-sung and his father.

In 2016, Kim rolled out a five-year national development scheme. But it has gained little traction as political uncertainties and the international sanctions scared away foreign investors and dried up business opportunities.

Absent any tangible outcome from the scheme, the North's leader may likely lose face in a future party congress, likely in the early 2020s, where the ruling Workers' Party would take stock of his achievements over the past years, observers said.

"Who would like to do business or cut any deal with a pariah state that the U.S. once labeled as an outpost of tyranny? Kim is obviously aware of the reality that his country's economy will not fare well with that opaque image," said Kim Tae-hyun, a diplomacy professor at Chung Ang University.

"He appears to be scrambling to project himself as a leader of a 'normal' state in summits with world leaders where his wife Ri Sol-ju also tags along -- an image that he can also use to play to his own citizens to instill a sense of pride in them," he added.

Trump's repeated mentions of the North's potential to become a "great economic powerhouse" should it relinquish its nuclear arsenal might have added to his nascent efforts to position himself as an economic leader.

This week's summit is likely to focus on fleshing out Pyongyang's denuclearization steps in return for Washington's corresponding measures that may include economic -- or humanitarian -- incentives to advance Kim's bread-and-butter agenda.

His ongoing southward train trip for the summit in Hanoi via China was full of symbolism. It harked back to the famous "Southern Tour" by late former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping who spearheaded China's economic reforms initiated in the late 1970s.

During the 1992 tour, Deng visited Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai -- the provinces and cities that stood at the heart of his reform initiatives -- to double down on his drive for economic transformation amid growing skepticism.

Shoring up the debilitated economy remains the only unfinished part of Pyongyang's long-term, three-pronged vision to become an "economically, ideologically and militarily strong" nation. The North claims it has already become a powerful nation ideologically with its ideology of "juche," or self-reliance, and militarily with the "nuclear button" on Kim's desk.

A positive leadership image is only a fraction of what the North needs for economic rehabilitation, analysts said.

"In terms of projecting DPRK to the world in economic terms, very little is known right now to the international community about the investment opportunities and challenges, legal frameworks and intellectual property rights in the DPRK," said Shawn Ho, a security researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. DPRK is the acronym for the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"More needs to be done by Chairman Kim to inform the world about why he sees his country as an attractive trading partner and investment destination," he added.

The venues for his summits with Trump also suggest his eagerness to shape his economic leadership image, analysts said.

Singapore, the host of the first Trump-Kim summit, is noted for its "open state-led capitalism" that has propelled the city-state into the ranks of Asia's wealthiest countries. Vietnam, the host of this week's summit, has emerged as a thriving economy through sweeping market liberalization reforms initiated in the late 1980s while retaining a single communist party system.

"Kim might have agreed to the summit venues as he has been angling for a new economic model that will still allow for his continued party control (despite economic openness)," Kim of Soongsil University said.

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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