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Opinion

Opinion: Kim's missed chance

At the first party congress in 36 years, North Korea's strongman Kim Jong Un should have announced a policy shift that would have brought his country out of its self-inflicted isolation, writes DW's Alexander Freund.

"If you want to test a man's character, give him power," Abraham Lincoln once said. But despite the immense power at his disposal, North Korea's young ruler Kim Jong Un has so far not used it judiciously, since he took over the reins of the isolated Northeast Asian nation four years ago.

He seems to have strengthened his hold on power - by systematically purging his opponents within the ruling party as well as in the military, while at the same time demonstrating determination by continuing to pursue the nation's controversial nuclear and missile programs.

But with these moves, Kim has brought North Korea further to the verge of despair.

The first Workers' Party congress in 36 years offered a glimmer of hope, with Kim issuing a "significant and important statement" ahead of the event. Giving the impression of a statesman, the young dictator announced on the big stage that the North would only use nuclear weapons for self-defense and advance global efforts toward nuclear disarmament.

That may sound reassuring for the international community, but it ultimately was a renewed attempt to portray the communist nation as a full nuclear power.

At the same time, the "responsible nuclear state" wants to pursue efforts to promote economic development. While this may sound reasonable, it should probably be understood as an attempt to cheer up the public, and particularly the officials, whose lives have been severely affected by an array of international sanctions imposed against the country. The newly-built amusement parks are no longer enough for the starving subjects.

Freund Alexander Kommentarbild App

DW's Alexander Freund

Carrots and sticks

The really surprising announcement at the congress came when Kim declared that Pyongyang would strive to improve relations even with the countries that have so far been regarded by the North as "hostile."

Confidence-building talks with South Korea would at least mark a start, even if the conciliatory tones are probably primarily directed toward the next South Korean government, which might probably be more willing to compromise than the conservative President Park.

By convening the first party congress in 36 years, Kim Jong Un had an historic opportunity to cautiously lead the North into the 21st century.

After all, the 33-year-old Kim went to school in Switzerland and is well aware of the world outside the isolated nation. He could have announced an overhaul of the communist government, thus signaling a change in policy.

Exploiting the personality cult surrounding the Kim family, he should have set the stage for a gradual opening up of the country in line with the Chinese model, in which the communist party - and not the military - controls all the levers of power, but where emphasis is also laid on economic development.

However, for that, the North will have to abandon its bellicose rhetoric. And only then will Kim be able to avert a collapse of the regime, and end the country's isolation as well as build a more sustainable state. But Kim has missed this historic opportunity. He lacked either the will or the strength to announce such a turnaround.

Self-inflicted isolation

Instead, North Korea is drifting deeper into isolation. The nation's sole ally China snubbed Pyongyang following its recent nuclear and missile tests, with Beijing too now complying with the stringent sanctions imposed by the international community.

This has severely hampered the North's trade with China, which has led to a substantial loss of the country's foreign exchange earnings - the income Pyongyang needs to finance its nuclear and missile programs. In addition, the South has withdrawn from the jointly-managed Kaesong industrial complex, a move demonstrating that Seoul is not willing to pursue efforts to see change in the North irrespective of the cost.

It would certainly be a mistake to underestimate North Korea and the Kim family, as the state and its ruling clique are ruthless when it comes to their survival. At the same time, we must not overestimate their capabilities. The sanctions are taking a toll, and the North has its back to the wall.

As a precautionary measure, the regime has imposed more hardships on the population. There is even talk of another "Arduous March," a terrible euphemism referring to the famine that killed millions in the 1990s. The regime should have announced a policy shift at the party congress. But the young dictator, for all his power, only turned out to be a prisoner of an anachronistic system.

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