Kim Jong-un Focuses on Economy as Nuclear Talks With U.S. Stall
When North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, visited a hydroelectric dam under construction last month, he reportedly “flew
into a rage” after learning why the dam was still unfinished after 17 years of work.

The dam, central to Mr. Kim’s efforts to alleviate his country’s chronic power shortages, suffered from a lack of workers,
equipment and materials, Mr. Kim is said to have found, and he learned that officials overseeing the project hadn’t even
visited the construction site.

“What makes me angrier is that these officials will never fail to miss the opportunity to show their shameless faces and take
credit when a ceremony is held to mark the completion of a power plant,” Mr. Kim was quoted by the North’s Korean
Central News Agency as saying. “I am speechless.”
The reports in the North Korean state news media about Mr. Kim’s anger were a jarring contrast to their typical portrayals
of such visits, which show Mr. Kim being mobbed by his adoring subjects.

Since late June, Mr. Kim has devoted almost all his public activities to visiting factories, farms and construction sites, rather
than the military units and weapons test sites that he frequented last year. And instead of boasting of his country’s military
prowess, he is lashing out at poor management at the sites he visits, highlighting his intense focus on fixing his economy.

Mr. Kim’s message is directed as much to the United States as to his people, experts in North Korean politics said, since his
pledge to deliver economic prosperity depends on persuading Washington to ease damaging international sanctions. Over
the weekend, Mr. Kim said his people were engaged in “a do-or-die struggle” against “brigandish sanctions,” which he said
caused “a serious setback” to his economy.

“What’s clear is that Kim Jong-un is desperate to ease sanctions and find his own ways of boosting production and
improving the lives of his people,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
“At the same time, he is shifting the blame to his underlings by criticizing lazy officials.”

By showing himself focused on the economy, rather than on weapons programs, Mr. Kim may be signaling that he is
willing to negotiate away his nuclear weapons if Washington offers the right incentives, Professor Koh said. But deep
skepticism persists that Mr. Kim will ever give them up or that the United States will provide the kind of rewards, like a
peace treaty ending the Korean War, that the North demands.

When Mr. Kim met President Trump in Singapore in June, the two agreed to build “new” relations and work toward the
“complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But their agreement lacked details, and frustrations have since
mounted on both sides over the lack of progress in carrying out the summit deal, dimming North Korea’s hopes for
sanctions relief and Washington’s desire for rapid denuclearization of the North.

Washington has so far canceled its joint military exercises with South Korea to help encourage North Korea to denuclearize.
But it has refused to ease sanctions, demanding that the country first move quickly toward denuclearization, initially by
declaring all its nuclear assets.

North Korea has made some moves to placate Washington, suspending its nuclear and missile tests, demolishing its
underground nuclear test site and tearing down a missile engine test site. But before it moves any further, it wants
Washington to declare an end to the Korean War, setting the stage for a formal peace treaty to replace the armistice that
halted the war in 1953.

The logjam between North Korea and the United States is hampering South Korea’s efforts to expand economic and other
ties with the North. The South’s president, Moon Jae-in, is scheduled to meet next month with Mr. Kim in Pyongyang, the
North Korean capital. On Wednesday, he revealed a bold vision for economic cooperation with North Korea, including
building joint economic zones along the border and linking the nations’ railways, provided that the North starts
denuclearizing.

In pushing economic development, Mr. Kim has a lot at stake as he seeks to cement his power over a country that suffered
a devastating famine in the 1990s and has only recently seen the emergence of a nascent, aspirational middle class.

“North Koreans are now as materialistic, greedy and unsatisfied as their comrades in the Soviet Union and East Germany
once were, and as are most of us in the West,” wrote Rüdiger Frank, a North Korea expert at the University of Vienna.
“North Korea has begun playing the capitalists’ game, and it has gone much further than most European socialist countries
ever went.”

In 2012, in his first public speech as North Korean leader, Mr. Kim pledged that his people would “never have to tighten
their belt again.”

The next year, he supplanted his father and predecessor Kim Jong-il’s “military-first” policy with his byungjin, or parallel
advance, approach of building a nuclear arsenal and the country’s economy simultaneously.

As he rapidly built up North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, Mr. Kim also modified its socialist economy by allowing
more than 400 markets, supplementing the state rations and government-run stores that used to be his people’s sole sources
of goods. He also granted more autonomy to factories and collective farms.

But the sanctions over his weapons programs have derailed recent economic progress. While North Korea’s economy grew
an average 1.77 percent annually between 2012 and 2015, thanks largely to market activities, according to Kim Byung-
yeon, a professor of economics at Seoul National University, in 2017 it contracted at its sharpest rate in two decades —
shrinking 3.5 percent, according to the South Korean Central Bank.

In his New Year’s Day speech, Mr. Kim said, “I spent the past year feeling anxious and remorseful for the lack of my
ability.”

In steering the country from nuclear brinkmanship to diplomacy, he hopes to build trade ties and ease the pressure of
sanctions. Since March, in addition to meeting Mr. Trump, he has met President Xi Jinping of China three times and Mr.
Moon of South Korea twice.

In April, he announced an end to his byungjin policy, explaining that he had completed one of the two parallel goals:
building a nuclear arsenal. Now, he said, North Korea would focus all national resources on rebuilding the economy.

Analysts in South Korea have since wondered: Does that mean that Mr. Kim is willing to bargain away his nuclear missiles
in exchange for economic and security concessions from the United States and its allies? And is the Trump administration
willing to test Mr. Kim’s intentions by engaging him with a give-and-take?

“What’s clear is that the pieces of the puzzle won’t come into place until we see improvements in relations between the
United States and North Korea and the easing and lifting of sanctions,” said Hwang Jae-jun, a North Korea specialist at the
Sejong Institute, a research think tank in South Korea.

In North Korea, the top leader uses his heavily publicized “field guidance” trips — like the visit to the troubled dam — to
establish his priorities. When Mr. Kim was expediting his nuclear and missile programs last year, he visited weapons
facilities and missile test sites, and hosted banquets for weapons engineers.

In contrast, almost all of the 30 field guidance trips Mr. Kim has made since late June were to factories, farms and
construction sites. On July 17, the Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s main newspaper, published 12 pages, double its normal
size, devoting the first nine pages to pictures and articles about Mr. Kim’s visits to factories and farms.

Last week, North Korean media published photos of Mr. Kim stripped down to an undershirt and sweating profusely while
visiting a fish-pickling factory during the country’s wilting heat wave. (North Korean leaders often conduct their field trips
during extreme weather to show their dedication, foreign analysts have noted.)

Despite such propaganda efforts, however, Mr. Kim may be more vulnerable to economic crises than his predecessors,
experts like Mr. Frank say, as outside goods and information have begun flowing into North Korea — thanks partly to Mr.
Kim’s own reforms.