Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Behind the smiles, what's Kim Jong Un's true intentions?

In this April 27, 2018, file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, second from left, holds a glass with his wife Ri Sol Ju, left, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Moon's wife Kim Jung-sook, right, during a banquet at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone. (Korea Summit Press Pool via AP)

On the night of April 27, following the inter-Korean summit meeting, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared particularly relaxed; his face red with alcohol while looking sleepy at times as he dined alongside his wife Ri Sol Ju facing South Korean President Moon Jae-in and first lady Kim Jung-sook. The image broadcast worldwide sent out the impression of Kim as a frank, open and likable person.

That image, however, failed to convey his tough posture at home, where he is tightening his grip on the economy. It is still hard to fathom his true intentions, whether he has made a decision to change course for his reclusive communist country.

"I heard that the party leadership on April 9 banned person-to-person transactions," a Chinese businessman from the northeastern province of Liaoning told the Mainichi Shimbun after he met with his North Korean trading partner. The information regarding the decision by the Workers' Party of Korea, which Kim Jong Un leads, meant that from now on business is only for corporations and other organizations, not for individuals.

"I sighed, because I felt like they moved back the economic clock to 30 years ago, when North Koreans depended solely on government rationing," said the Chinese businessman, who has made his living out of private trading with the North.

Since Kim came to power six years ago, North Korea has enjoyed moderate growth with the partial introduction of market economy policies. Shops in the capital Pyongyang sell juice and soda in colorful bottles. Residents there are keen to cash in on any business opportunities, and you can almost feel the vigor in the air.

But accompanying such a change was social instability. At kindergartens and elementary schools in Pyongyang, classes teaching how to play the piano or painting are only offered to children from families who can afford the lessons. Some students stop attending school when their parents' businesses falter.

Moreover, some people feel frustrated enough to argue against the government when they feel the economic reforms are failing -- actions once considered to bring serious consequences under the stringent one-party rule.

In one case in November last year in Pyongyang, a top city official reprimanded a mid-level official in charge of agriculture for his failure to do his job, and the subordinate responded bitterly, saying, "You don't allow farmers to try their own initiatives. That's why we failed!" Collective farming based on socialism is still the norm in the North.

These repercussions have apparently led the North Korean leadership to believe that the marketization of the economy has gone too far. As early as March 19, the Ministry of People's Security issued a directive on "punishing severely those who commit acts of anti- and counter-socialism."

The directive targeted the rich -- called "Tonju" in Korean meaning "money masters." According to the South Korean news agency Newsis, which obtained a picture of the directive, the ministry's prohibition covers the distribution and appreciation of South Korean TV dramas and music and lending money with interest. Tonju have been the driving force of the market economy in North Korea.

Kim Young-hui, a specialist on the North Korean economy at the Korea Development Bank in Seoul and a former defector, commented, "The North has pursued reforms by gradually introducing market economy elements. But if the country is really tightening its grip, it means cutting back on private economic activities and returning to an economic system with state corporations at its center."

The current path Kim Jong Un is taking -- improving the relationship with South Korea while strengthening domestic control -- appears similar to the direction his late father Kim Jong Il took after the 2007 inter-Korean summit.

What is the thinking behind selecting this course of action? A former mid-level Workers' Party official who defected from the country says that the party leadership thinks the socialist economy can be maintained by taking over the funds coming in from the South through private business transactions.

Apparently, North Korean leaders, fearing that outside money comes with information or ideology eroding the current regime, decided to act proactively.

The positive posture shown in the inter-Korean summit on April 27 runs counter to the human rights situation of North Korean defectors and their relatives back home. The Panmunjom Declaration, which the two leaders signed, called for peace, prosperity and unification of the Korean Peninsula, which is home to 80 million people. But it failed to answer the question some 30,000 North Korean defectors living in the South have: Are their families safe, and will they eventually be able to get reunited?

At a rally seeking the reunification of the Korean Peninsula in Seoul, a woman cried out repeatedly to her younger sister left in North Korea: "My sister Young-ae, you've always been on my mind since we got separated 20 years ago. Live until unification. It is not too far away. See you soon in our homeland. You must live!"

The woman was among some 1,000 people who gathered to pray at the rally. Following the shouts of the woman, many defectors in tears called to their fathers and mothers, hoping to see their family members again.

At the inter-Korean summit last week, Kim made an unusual reference to defectors, saying that they seemed to be hopeful of the outcome of the meeting. He went on to say, after signing the Panmunjom Declaration, "If the people of the North and the South can freely use the path I took today to come here, and Panmunjom becomes a symbol of peace, I believe that the North and the South can come together as they should and enjoy prosperity."

Kim's words can be construed to indicate his acceptance of defectors. But the declaration actually includes a clause challenging those fighting human rights abuses in North Korea. The passage states that as of May 1 all hostile acts shall be ceased and their means eliminated, including broadcasting through loudspeakers and the distribution of leaflets, in the areas along the military demarcation line, the de-facto border between the two Koreas.

Defector Ji Seong-ho, who attended the Seoul rally, praised the inter-Korean summit as opening the door to a possible solution to the nuclear issue. He nevertheless added, with apparent disappointment on his face, "The meeting should have addressed the issue of residents facing tough times, but there was no reference to them."

People like Ji are worried that the ban on flyers, which were distributed to provide information to residents in the North, would serve as an obstacle to human rights activists. Ji attracted international media attention after President Donald Trump of the United States invited him and other defectors to the White House and to Congress for his State of the Union address.

"The U.S. champions freedom and democracy. I want President Trump to raise the issue of human rights in North Korea" in the upcoming summit meeting with Kim, said Ji.

(Japanese original by Koichi Yonemura and Chiharu Shibue, Seoul Bureau)

Also in The Mainichi

The Mainichi on social media