News analysis

What North Korea wants from Trump-Kim talks: Security guarantee and economic growth

The willingness of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to fly to Singapore to meet US President Donald Trump could be a sign that he is now seeking to open up and develop his country's backward, impoverished economy, analysts say.

This, however, depends on whether the two leaders can strike a satisfactory deal on June 12 on North Korea's denuclearisation.

The US has made it clear it wants complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the North's nuclear programme, but the regime prefers a phased approach, with sanctions lifted early.

Dr Bong Young Shik of Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies told The Straits Times that there is a huge gap between the two sides, but reckons they may settle on "phased, synchronised denuclearisation in the shortest amount of time".

Some analysts estimate that denuclearisation can be completed within two years - giving Mr Kim time to realise the five-year economic strategy he announced in 2016. South Korea is also eager to help, with many cities and companies planning inter-Korea projects after a historic meeting between Mr Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae In paved the way for reconciliation.

Travelling to Singapore is Mr Kim's way of showing commitment to dialogue with the US, according to Dr Graham Ong-Webb, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

"It is a coming out party among coming out parties," he said, referring to the fact that Mr Kim had already dominated world headlines by meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mr Moon.

"This one is a little different because the US is the world's sole superpower, and every meeting he has with the US President develops his international standing."

The summit in Singapore, however, carries a huge price for North Korea. Which is why Mr Kim would "want something big in return", said Dr Bong.

The first, he noted, is a "reliable, verifiable and permanent security guarantee by the US" to ensure regime survival. There is also a possibility that North Korea and the US could enter into a military alliance in the future, he added.

The second is economic prosperity, said Dr Bong, adding that Mr Kim may seek to be like former South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee (1963-1979).

"Being raised in Switzerland and the third generation (of the Kim dynasty), Kim Jong Un would not want to be the same kind of leader like his reclusive father. He would want to be like Park Chung Hee, maintaining dictatorship guaranteed by the US security umbrella, while at the same time, making the country prosper."

South Korea's Mr Moon has already handed Mr Kim a so-called "new economic map for the Korean peninsula", which contains new railways, power plants and other infrastructure projects for the North. North Korea is also keen to resume tourism projects, and has expressed willingness to open up its airspace for international flights heading south to pass through.

Asian politics expert Sean King from Washington-based consulting firm Park Strategies remains sceptical. "Opening up... means the end of North Korea. As best I can tell, Kim will do the absolute bare minimum that he can get away with to get sanctions relief," he told The Straits Times.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 12, 2018, with the headline What North Korea wants from Trump-Kim talks: Security guarantee and economic growth. Subscribe