“That’s new,” Mr. Delury said. “For Kim Jong-un to say domestically the strategy is changed, it’s all about the economy, that’s not something that his father did or his grandfather did.”
The world does not need to like Mr. Kim, Mr. Delury said, to see hints of a virtuous cycle of diplomacy and economic relief. As tensions ease, the theory goes, peace brings the promise of sanctions relief or even trade, inducing Mr. Kim to soften further. Threats or isolation, which would risk those gains, become less attractive.
Emma Ashford, a scholar of foreign policy at the Washington-based Cato Institute, said the world did not have to take Mr. Kim on his word alone.
“There is a fair amount of evidence that Kim Jong-un has accepted that the North Korean economy is, if not liberalizing, then there is a bottom-up marketization occurring and he has to accept that in order to survive,” Ms. Ashford said.
She cited reports of growing and widely tolerated black market activity. “That’s something you see a lot of dictators do,” she said.
And many of the world’s fiercest autocrats have found they can most safely remain in power, Ms. Ashford said, by shifting their promise to citizens from “I will keep you safe” to “I will make you prosperous.”
Both China and Vietnam, once isolated and totalitarian, took this path, and as they have grown economically interdependent with the outside world, threats of war have cooled. While both remain severely authoritarian, a degree of controlled openness has significantly improved the lives of everyday citizens.