Economically as in other ways, life is a hard slog for North Koreans. Could their leader be persuaded to refocus his attention on realistic ways to lift their burdens? Photo: Wikipedia

I was reminded, when a researcher asked me to respond to a survey, that there was a story I’d been meaning to write.

The survey questions were generally good. For example, one asked what had been Kim Jong Un’s best decision so far in his decade-long rule, in terms of sustaining that rule. It was a good question, because (a.) keeping power is by far the number one interest of any member of North Korea’s Kim Dynasty and also because (b.) the suggested replies included one that I considered the correct answer.

The answer I ticked as the best decision was Kim’s shedding, this year, of a lot of bodily weight. My brief explanation stated the obvious: “If he dies, that’s not sustaining his rule. He’ll live longer with the svelte outline.”

As for Kim’s worst decision, another from this year reversing himself on “reforms” and “recentralizing state control over the economy” struck me as close enough – although I think there’s a tendency among Norkologists to overuse the term “reform” when describing Pyongyang’s economic policy pronouncements. Most such lauded pronouncements strike me as falling short of real reform.

I felt no need to comment further on that answer – and likewise with my choice of canned answers to the question of what has been “Washington’s best North Korea-focused decision during the Kim Jong Un era?” There I chose “keeping the alliance with South Korea a top US priority, both from diplomatic and military perspectives.”

This undated picture, released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 30 shows the newly thinner North Korean leader Kim Jong Un taking part in the First Workshop of Korea People’s Army commanders and political officers, at April 25 House of Culture in Pyongyang. Photo: KCNA VIA KNS

The first question whose list of suggested answers included none that I could agree with was itself a zinger: “If international policy doesn’t change, the DPRK will in 2026 ___ .” I filled in the blank with my own answer – predicting that, in that case, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will “be in about the same state as if international policy does change.”

I’m surprised the no-change outcome wasn’t on the list presented for choice. At root, as I noted in the space left for comment, it is Kim’s decisions that determine North Korea’s course. It’s difficult to think of anything the outside world could, realistically, give him that would make him feel secure enough in his rule to throw away the playbook he inherited from Gramps and Daddy.

“But,” I wrote, “see my next answer.”

The next question – “Faced with the current status quo, what should Washington now do?” – was the one that reminded me of the story I’d been planning.

After my previous answer, I might have been expected to tick: “Do nothing – just try to wait out for positive changes inside North Korea.” But who wants to be a total do-nothing pessimist?

There wasn’t another answer listed that inspired me to choose it, but one did seem partially promising: “Normalize relations, sign a peace treaty and pursue a policy of sustained economic, political and even military engagement – accepting denuclearization is a lost cause.”

My problem with that answer was that I felt it offered Kim way too much accommodation at one throw, essentially giving away the store. So I ticked “other” and wrote: “Try economic engagement not tied to denuclearization and not accompanied by a peace treaty.”

I explained: “If there is any remote chance of turning Kim from the course set by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, it probably lies in showing him he can be a hero to his people, secure in a long rule, as the leader of the newest Asian tiger.”

To expand on that: I do know that the approach has been tried before on the North Korean ruler of the time and that the efforts ended in failure – and I fear the chance is indeed remote.

But I also know a man who has a long track record of close dealings with the regime, who has made clear he’s available to try again to help get economic advancement going – and who has argued that this can be done even within the current very stringent diplomatic limitations set by facts ranging from (a.) that there’s no Korean War treaty in place to (z.) that international and bilateral sanctions have piled onto Kim as he’s pursued his nuclear weapons ambitions.

Could something be in the works? That’s the story I’d had on my list to write, updating last year’s Asia Times articles on Colin McAskill’s experiences and plans. At the moment I find, though, that the gentleman is mum. Perhaps that’s a positive sign.

Briton Colin McAskill (left) is shown with a North Korean contact. Photo courtesy Colin McAskill.

Anyhow, there are others who see a shot. Take, for example, Spencer H Kim, CEO of California aerospace firm CBOL Corp and co-founder of the Pacific Century Foundation, who particularly emphasizes a leading South Korean role.

“If the US, South Korea, Japan, China and the rest of the world want North Korea to denuclearize, they must be willing to give Kim Jong-un what he wants most of all – security for him and his regime,” Spencer Kim writes in a recent issue of the Korea Herald.

Security from what?

First, China, the superpower next door that would love to make North Korea “a de facto Chinese province.” Second, there’s “the domestic threat. A coup? Widespread unrest if the economy totally shatters? Or, conversely, deep disappointment following rising expectations? Even a totalitarian regime like Kim’s cannot rely only on the brutality of the secret police; it also needs a success narrative that creates at least a modicum of loyalty and willing compliance.”

Third comes “the United States, a constant military threat,” and, fourth, there’s “the complex sociological and psychological, and even military threat from South Korea,” Spencer Kim writes. “The siren song of Southern absorption has arisen in people’s minds – in North and South.”

He argues that Kim Jong-un and the North “have to be persuaded that Seoul is the best partner in addressing all four of their existential threats. South Korea can help with the economic development and diversification” that can end reliance on China and minimize unrest responding to deprivation.

“South Korea can be the brake on any US military adventurism. Seoul can use its status to pave the way for better acceptance of North Korea on the international stage. Seoul can declare a policy of no absorption and only mutually agreed reunification when the time comes.”

US and South Korean soldiers in Yeoncheon-gun, South Korea. Photo: AFP / Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

Lynn Turk, a retired US diplomat, has long been involved closely with Korean affairs including several years of efforts in the private sector alongside McAskill to promote North Korean economic development.

Turk consulted with Spencer Kim on the wording of the Korea Herald op-ed and says, “I agree with what he says completely. Bottom line: Let the South be the point man. But the South has to decide what the desired outcome is.

“End of war” via peace treaty or declaration, Turk adds, “is not important, one way or the other – except that, if the South wants it, do it.”

A veteran Asia correspondent and a Pyongyang watcher since 1977, Asia Times Associate Editor Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.