SEOUL— President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un of North Korea will hold the first-ever meeting between leaders of their two countries on Tuesday morning in Singapore, carrying with them hopes to end seven decades of hostility and the threat of a nuclear confrontation. Amid this backdrop, a key question is why Kim Jong Un is engaging with the outside world now?
The North Korean leader has been in power for more than six years, in part through reshuffling of top brass. He's even had potential rivals to his leadership killed, including an uncle and half-brother. Described as intelligent and "ruthless," according to North Korea watchers and defectors, his actions and messaging have been consistent: I'm in charge. Nuclear prowess is a crucial part of his regime's identity.
Still in his 30s, Kim is ruling 25 million people in a country roughly the size of Pennsylvania. Founded after World War II, North Korea should have collapsed when a key benefactor, the Soviet Union, crumbled. Yet North Korea persists in an improbable mashup of state actors, scrappy private business owners hustling in vast open-air markets, and systematic violations of human rights by the regime. The country suffers under the weight of extreme poverty and isolation.
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In this sometimes surreal backdrop, Kim has departed from his father's "military first" approach and is instead engineering a "dual track" policy to advance his nuclear program and economy.
Fixated on the long game, his economic playbook is likely to include special economic zones that allow for experimentation and rule-bending in controlled settings. North Korea will also need much-needed capital from international investors as the country's infrastructure, including power grids, buildings and transportation, is outdated. Construction activity inside the North also suggests a bet on expanded tourism that would generate hard currency.