SEOUL, South Korea — 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 of 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 at the United States as at 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.
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