Saturday, December 25, 2021

Update on the Pakchon Uranium Mill

The Pakchon Uranium Concentrate Pilot Plant is the first uranium concentration plant in North Korea and is one of only two known to exist, the other being the Pyongsan plant

Operations at Pakchon take uranium-bearing ore (usually from coal) and concentrate it into 'yellowcake' which has a uranium concentration of 99% pure U-238, a low radioactivity, long half-life form of uranium. From here, it is sent to other sites (such as Yongbyon) where it is converted into highly enriched U-235 which can be used for bomb production.

However, its operations have been scaled down and it has been in caretaker status since perhaps as far back as 2002.

But although uranium production has been shunted to the more modern Pyongsan, Pakchon's caretaker status certainly doesn't mean abandoned. Recent satellite imagery suggests at least some limited operations are still ongoing and that the regime has been fairly active in maintaining the complex. The continued importance of Pakchon in the country's nuclear program is evidenced by the fact that the United States was interested in having it permanently closed and dismantled as one of five nuclear facilities offered up by North Korea in exchange for sanctions relief. 

When I first wrote about the site in 2019, I noted two buildings that were either being demolished or that had been left to fall apart. Since then, commercial satellite imagery from Sept. 14, 2021 shows that one of those buildings has been completely reconstructed. Additionally, a repaired section of roof on the main milling building can be identified.

The imagery also shows that the complex's administrative section has seen construction and that the waste material reservoir is still being used.

The nearby mine that provides uranium-bearing ore has also been continually active. Whether it's sending its full production to the Pyongsan Uranium Mill or diverting small amounts to Pakchon, I can't say, but the improvements made at Pakchon suggests that the ore from the mine would likely one day be sent back to Pakchon if it becomes reactivated in the future.

Taking these changes one-by-one, the first I'll talk about is the reconstruction of the thermal building which provides extra electricity for the plant. 

Thermal plant as seen on March 19, 2012.

In the above image from 2012, the thermal plant complex is clearly visible. Coal is housed in the bulk storage building where it is then moved uphill via a conveyor belt to the generating hall. The coal ash is then dumped outside of the building in a pile next to the conveyor where it accumulates until removed.

In 2019, the generator hall was being demolished.

By October 2019, the generating hall had been torn down to its foundations.

There is a gap in the Google Earth imagery, but by September 2021, a new structure can be seen.

The absence of a conveyor system, either above or below ground, suggests that construction to modernize the plant may not yet be complete.

Nearby are two other unidentified support buildings that have been left to fall apart.

Building #1 has a partially collapsed roof while building #2 is missing its roof entirely.


In this image, from right to left, you can follow the production process as described by the Center for Strategic International Studies.

The September 14, 2021 image also shows that a section of roof has been repaired in the section of the production building that is responsible for drying and filtering the yellowcake uranium before it is shipped out.

Pakchon's waste reservoir is split into two reservoirs, an upper and a lower one, divided by an earthen dam. The area of the reservoir that is filled with waste is approximately 3.4 hectares, with the upper section usually being filled with water and the lower section containing sludge and newer waste materials.

While the size of the reservoir hasn't changed in at least 17 years, the sludge pool has seen continued activity, particularly in the last few years. 

Beginning in 2019, a new staging area was constructed to accommodate vehicles and other equipment involved in the management of the reservoir. The staging area covers roughly 2,900 sq. .m. 

One other section of the Pakchon complex that has seen recent activity is in the administrative area. In 2019 a new theater/assembly hall was constructed over the course of the year.

The new hall is on top of substantial construction work that happened between 2008 and 2012, when nearly every current structure visible was either renovated or added.

Additionally, the fish farm that exists next to the administrative area had more modern facilities built in 2019-2020. These fish farms can be found throughout the country and help provide needed protein to local workers, military personnel, and the fish can even be exported to earn the country foreign currency.  

While none of this activity suggests full-scale operations have resumed at the concentration plant, it does support the idea that, like Punggye-ri, the site remains part of the country's nuclear program and may be ready to resume limited production should the order come.

As Joseph Bermudez wrote for CSIS back in 2019 about the low-level activity that can be observed, "the most likely explanations for this activity would be small processing runs of iron-bearing ore of some type, caretaker maintenance work, or decommissioning of equipment within the plant." 

However, with the newer imagery and changes, I would like to suggest that some of the activity could be part of pollution mitigation efforts or reprocessing older ore/waste material to extract small amounts of formerly discarded minerals (an activity seen at certain mining sites in recent years).

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, Rinmanah, and Russ Johnson.

--Jacob Bogle, 12/24/2021

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Kim Jong-un's First Decade - A Decade of Market Growth

This is the fourth and final of the supplemental articles for the Kim Jong-un's First Decade in Power series. It details the various infrastructure changes and weapon developments of North Korea's conventional forces over the last decade.

Undated image from the North Korean government (via of the interior of a marketplace in Pyongyang.


Modern markets in North Korea trace their history back to the chaos of the famine of 1994-98 that killed upwards of 1 million people through starvation and related diseases.

As the central government’s ability to feed the people through the Public Distribution System failed (previously a citizen’s primary source of food), people had to make the decision to either abide by state ideology and starve or they could take matters into their own hands.

Since the vast majority of men were either serving in the military or still forced to report to derelict state factories for “work”, women took the lead and created the foundations of today’s market system that has spawned an entirely new generation, the jangmadang generation (those who came of age after the famine and during the period of marketization).

What began as highly illegal activity in the black markets has, twenty-three years after the famine, evolved into a series of legal and quasi-legal markets that has resulted in an entire generation never knowing reliance on state rations and who are unlikely to give up that freedom (and a greater selection of goods) to go back to the old days of the Public Distribution System’s monopoly.

The evolution of markets has weakened the regime’s internal travel restrictions and prompted an interest in entrepreneurship that can be seen in the creation of private transportation companies and a booming housing market, enabling the development of a middle class for the first time in North Korea’s history.

The regime has grappled with this loss of control through cracking down on market activity and, at times, trying to bring it under central authority by giving it a level of legitimacy (particularly in Kim Jong-un’s first several years as leader). But while Pyongyang is still trying to adapt to the reality that markets are likely here to stay, the wheels of commerce have not stood still. Today there are at least 477 markets throughout the country providing everything from rice and corn to home goods, foreign entertainment, and medicine.

Although there has been considerable research into early market development and its impact on people’s lives, I want to take this opportunity to show the growth arc of markets over the last decade and to reiterate that, absent the recent effects of COVID-19, market activity has not stalled or reached a saturation point but remains a dynamic economic force both because of and in spite of the regime.


A quick note: I have tried to tailor this report to focus on the markets and on how economic policies have affected them. More details and a broader view on economic policy under Kim Jong-un will be the focus of an upcoming regular article of the series.


Early Policies under Kim Jong-un

Perhaps due to his preoccupation with consolidating power or perhaps because he realized the state still couldn’t be the sole provider of people’s needs as in the days of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un initially took a wait-and-see approach to the markets with the occasional foray into reform.

Exactly how open he was to reform is up for debate, but there is clear evidence that he was not only willing to continue the tacit approval of the growing market economy as his father had been forced to in the wake of the famine, but he was also willing to become the first North Korean ruler to implement market-oriented reforms (at least for a time) that positively affected the average person.

The government has tried to integrate the market economy into the centralized command economy by allowing the markets to exist while taxing them and regulating the kinds of goods that are allowed to be sold. As Prof. Andrei Lankov summarized in his 2016 report The Resurgence of a Market Economy in North Korea, “The government’s approach to the private sector has been mixed. It generally accepts private enterprise as a necessary evil, but for political reasons, it is not prepared to legalize it completely. Kim Jong-un’s government is more tolerant of private enterprise than its predecessors.” However, “the outright legalization of the private sector appears unlikely.”

Kim has also sought to compete with the markets by modernizing an ever-growing number of state-owned department stores. While these stores are not part of the ground-up marketization that has spawned hundreds of trading locations across the country, they have helped to fill a need for those who have managed to make it into the monied-class through private economic activity, particularly in Pyongyang.

With this mix of private and state options that currently exist, those with enough disposable cash can have access to bulk rice and illegal South Korean TV shows via the trading stalls and can then go purchase $1,000 designer handbags in department stores – with the added bonus of not risking getting arrested as the store's products are fully sanctioned.

But legitimizing the markets themselves was only one part of the economic puzzle that has led to a relatively robust market economy.

Chart showing the relative stability of the black market value of the North Korean won prior to the COVID-19 trade restrictions. Image source: DailyNK/Bloomberg.

The government has also taken a lax approach to the black market exchange rate of the won. Officially, 100 won is roughly equal to $1 USD, but in the markets, it’s well over 5,000:1.

Instead of instituting more disastrous currency reforms as it did in 2009, it has allowed the black market rate to serve as the won’s true indicator of value while being more aggressive in regulating the use of foreign currency. So, people have been able to save and invest using the North Korean won and those savings have not been at risk of arbitrary confiscation or a dramatic devaluation at the hands of the central bank in years.

This sense of stability has further strengthened the marketization process up and down the entire system.

In 2012, in one of Kim’s first major economic changes, he allowed farmers to keep their surplus produce to sell or trade and to keep any profits. Prior to the famine, selling food from state-controlled farms was highly regulated. Now, farmers would have incentives to keep working on government farms (instead of leaving to tend to their own illegal plots). Under this plan, improving agricultural output to alleviate food shortages was the state’s goal. However, it had the secondary effect of filling the markets with more and more foodstuffs and enabled farmers who’d otherwise be forced to rely on less than $15 a month in wages to earn enough money to live and not merely subsist.

Initially, it was projected that (so long as they met state quotas) most farmers would end up being able to sell 30-50% of their harvest in the markets. Enabling food to be sold and distributed locally is also highly beneficial during times of food scarcity as it improves the efficiency of distribution and ensures supplies still exist even as prices rise.

With the addition of new initiatives by the regime to dramatically increase the allowed size of ‘kitchen gardens’ from 100 sq. m. to 3,000 sq. m., by 2015, data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and anecdotal reports from within the country seemed to show that these early reforms by Kim Jong-un were bearing fruit.


Another major part to why markets continued to thrive has been the end of the Songun (military-first) policy. Instituted by Kim Jong-il to give the military a greater role over economic planning and the prioritization of resources when the regime saw itself under extreme external threat, the policy created massive distortions in the economy and diverted needed investment away from light industry and agriculture.

Kim Jong-un has worked to dismantle Songun in favor of his Byungjin Line or “parallel development” that seeks to pursue nuclear weapons without neglecting the domestic economy. A refocused approach to bolstering light industry and improving the quality of consumer goods has led to some improvements in the quality and diversity of available goods while also seeing factories in various sectors modernized.


Market Growth

In 2018 the Center for Strategic and International Security released a report on North Korea’s markets. Their reporting revealed that there were at least 436 officially sanctioned markets in the country and that the government received $58.6 million each year from stall rental fees and taxes.

Additional CSIS reports showed that a substantial portion of citizens earn at least 75% of their income from market activities. This finding fits well within what others have reported including New Focus International and defector testimony.

Based on the AccessDPRK Mapping Project (2021), this supplemental report provides an update on the number of markets in the country.

There are at least 477 markets in North Korea with 20 being identified as informal street markets and 457 being official markets. Of the official markets, some are still open-air sites with no permanent buildings. Because of this, it can be difficult to ascertain changes to the level of activity occurring there. So, I will only be focusing on the 441 markets that have permanent vendor stalls, as their construction and removal can be tracked across time, providing better direct evidence for the health of the economy in each city.

– A note on methodology, formal markets tend to have a defined boundary wall. Within that boundary can exist vendor stalls plus open ground for overflow capacity. Often, they include both. In cases where a substantial portion of the market is just open space, I have only included the areas occupied by stalls as the market’s “area”, as those stalls are responsible for most of the everyday economic activity that occurs and are the only thing that can be routinely measured. –

This chart shows the total area of the new markets constructed each year.

Since 2011, I have noted thirty-nine newly constructed markets. Of those with precise construction dates (there’s occasionally gaps in Google Earth imagery) two were built in 2011, four in 2012, three in 2013, five in 2014, four in 2016, three in 2017, five in 2018, six in 2019, three in 2020, and one is known to have been constructed in 2021. As this shows, there has been no real decline in the growth rate of markets over the course of the decade until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2011, 2,650 sq. m. worth of new markets was constructed and by 2019 that had grown to 23,260 sq. m. of additional market space. But that dropped precipitously following COVID-19 with only 7,450 sq. m. of space added in 2020 and just 630 sq. m. verified in 2021.

A further 114 markets have also grown in size since 2011. In total, there is 1,502,270 sq. m. (16,170,299 sq. ft.) worth of vendor stalls within the 441 market sites reviewed. That’s a net increase of 236,320 sq. m. (2,543,727 sq. ft.) since 2011. There are also tens of thousands of square meters in various overflow spaces outside of the main market buildings, but as these spaces aren’t always clearly delineated and often spill out into the streets or surrounding fields, trying to measure them can become somewhat arbitrary.

The largest single market in the country by area is the Sariwon market located in Kuchon-3 district (38.501407° 125.778737°). With at least 29,000 sq. m. of space, it’s over 8,000 sq. m. larger than the next largest market in North Korea. The market was constructed in a former stadium and includes a large central building surrounded by dozens of smaller structures that hold vendor stalls and other facilities.

Some other market-related stats are:

  • The newest market is in Hamhung. Constructed between 2020-2021, this small market (39.953089° 127.560062°) provides facilities to the growing districts around the Chemical Materials Institute and Tonghungsan Machine Plant.
  • There are 26 markets greater than 10,000 sq. m. in size.
  • There are 95 markets with less than 1,000 sq. m. worth of vendor stalls.
  • The smallest market (as best as I can determine using Google Earth measurements) is in the town of Hwaam (40.675307° 126.451652°) and only has ~130 sq. m. of active space. It does have some overflow area, but currently, there is just a small cluster of permanent structures.
  • Although it wasn’t until 2002 that the government allowed officially sanctioned markets to operate, based on the available Google Earth imagery, at least 56 market sites with permanently constructed buildings had already been in existence prior to 2002. These include markets in Anbyon, Sinpo, Wonsan, and at least eleven in Pyongyang. These are, of course, in addition to the many open-air street markets that also existed at the time that were later converted to permanent sites.
  • Based on a 2014-16 survey, there are over 600,000 individual vendor stalls within official markets. Today, that figure is likely closer to 750,000 as substantially more markets have been identified and others have grown.


Different approaches to the measurement of market sizes and the addition of new markets constructed since the 2018 CSIS market report makes directly estimating government revenue from that report difficult. However, using their published estimates for government revenue from each market, the range of annual revenue each square meter of market space brings in is between $26.56 and $36.05. Applying those figures to the current amount of active stall space as measured in this supplemental report, the central government receives between $39.7 million and $54 million in revenue. If one were to include open-air markets (which are variable in size) or include the overflow spaces as part of the revenue-making area, as of 2021, the government brings in over $60 million each year.

Later Changes and the Effect of COVID

Street vendors selling produce near the highway running from Nampo to Kaesong. Image source: Uwe Brodrecht, Oct. 13, 2015, via Commons (CC 2.0). Image has been cropped.

 Although Kim has been incredibly open about economic and food troubles compared to his father, he still has an obligation to strengthen the state, stamp out threats to the regime, and manage the expectations of the people. Those threats include private markets and even a rising standard of living.

The desire to control the markets is more than just about the drive for greater economic control from Pyongyang. Markets form a core part of nearly every DPRK citizen’s daily life. They are a source for networking, sharing gossip (including views that could be viewed as treasonous), and are a key source of electronic devices and digital media that further erode the information cordon that has existed for generations.

Market activity has helped to raise people’s expectations of what a decent life is, and if the government can’t assist in raising standards of living, people tend to decide those in charge are expendable. This threat is why Kim Jong-il, at best, engaged in benign neglect of growing market forces within the country but would not have countenanced anything as dangerous as reform, as reform brought with it its own risks to the stability of the regime.

Kim Jong-un, on the other hand, has calculated that he must allow for reforms, though limited, to continue the country’s economic growth as he has staked a good portion of his legitimacy on improving the economic condition of the country, repeatedly calling out failures and promising a final end to food shortages.

This has created an internal contradiction, where reforms must take place for the people to survive but they must also be applied as sparingly as possible if the regime is to maintain its ultimate authority rooted in the systems created by Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism. To address this, new economic initiatives are often kneecapped to limit their spread and others are announced but never followed up on.

Kim “seems to be doing everything [he] can to keep up Stalinist appearances and…probably believes that he cannot abandon socialist rhetoric without risking his legitimacy,” as Peter Ward told 38 North in December 2017.

Market regulations, agricultural and industrial reforms, changes to how banking and the accumulation of savings work, have all been tweaked over time. And some have had limited success in the places where they’ve been tried, but Kim has yet to commit to anything more than shallow reforms.

One group that has taken advantage of ‘reforms on paper’ is corrupt officials. These individuals, many at high levels of government, are an indispensable cog in the way markets currently work in North Korea. Bribes yield permits and licenses, and further bribes shield entrepreneurs from the more serious repercussions that would otherwise result in their activity. These bribes and kickbacks end up becoming a major source of income for thousands of security officials and bureaucrats, creating an undercurrent pushing markets forward and diminishing any momentum that Pyongyang builds to limit those activities.

The problem of corruption has been publicly discussed by Kim Jong-un more than once, and he has recognized the problems to his regime it creates. How to deal with mismanagement and embezzlement without also crushing the market system that corruption has actually assisted in creating is something yet to be resolved.

Occasionally, large-scale crackdowns are conducted and anyone who gets caught up in them will just have to face reality. But more often than not, on a day-to-day basis, most authorities remained happy to turn a blind eye in exchange for bribes and kickbacks so long as the right signals from Pyongyang existed.


After ending the Songun policy and ostensibly fulfilling the goals of Byungjin (by developing miniaturized nuclear weapons), by 2018, Kim Jong-un stated that the Party’s focus should be primarily on economic matters once again.

This didn’t necessarily mean making trade easier. It meant growing the economy while reasserting the state’s control. Nonetheless, the evolution of Pyongyang’s approach to markets from illegality to tacit approval, and to the flirtations with quasi market-socialism that finally seemed to be coming into its own. However, in the final nail to the coffin of Kim being a “Swiss-educated reformer”, his authoritarian streak suddenly became much more pronounced at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 was an obvious threat to the country’s survival as North Korea has one of the poorest healthcare systems in the world and relies on international aid to keep illnesses like tuberculosis in check. At the same time, the strict internal travel regulations and the ability of the state to micromanage huge portions of a person’s life meant that North Korea was also uniquely prepared to enforce lockdowns and quarantine measures, both on a per-city level and could even shut off entire provinces from the rest of the country if it wanted.

But the regime didn’t want to only rely on masks or temporary lockdowns, and it offered Kim a prime opportunity to stem the unpleasant tide of outside information and the further erosion of central authority.

In January 2020 it sealed its borders to levels not seen since the days of Kim Il-sung and began to restrict any cross-border trade or communications using the false threat that the surfaces of objects (even dust) were a major carrier of the virus – it’s not.

Kim Jong-un embarked on two tracks in the wake of COVID-19, constructing a border blockade to stop the virus and using the enhanced security measures to go after other ‘threats’ –  growing markets and increasing levels of outside information.

The blockade has meant the de facto suspension of trade with China as movements across the border were prohibited beginning in January 2020. And it has meant physical barriers in the form of miles and miles of double fencing across a large section of the Sino-DPRK border along with hundreds of new guard posts to secure the fence. It has also taken the form of electronic countermeasures to block cell phone signals, track those making calls into China, and to seek out potential defectors.

The combined effects of this blockade have resulted in around an 80% decline in trade, the country’s only lifeline, and there have been fewer defectors making it to South Korea than at any time since the flow of defectors began in the 1990s.


The effect on the markets is both commercial and ideological. Basic necessities are now running out and there is a real risk for nationwide food shortages because trade has been so severely restricted. Kim has also cracked down on electronics and media that are so often found in the marketplace in an attempt to shore up the ideological ‘purity’ of the population.

Stories of imprisonment and even executions for possessing foreign media (particularly South Korean content) have spiked since 2019 and the markets have served as a source of this illicit material since their inception.

Small crackdowns have always occurred, typically in the lead-up to holidays and other important events,  but as COVID has provided an additional excuse, Kim has begun larger and larger crackdowns with more severe punishments. DailyNK has provided numerous reports of these actions including one on December 17, 2021 as part of the regime’s attempt to curb capitalistic ‘disorder’ and to improve the people’s ideological fortitude for the 10th anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death.

These crackdowns have also been focused on the informal markets that still exist in the streets of many North Korean towns. These are still black markets and aren’t part of officially sanctioned economic activity.

The black markets offer those who can’t afford to pay rental fees the ability to still sell and barter. As the situation within North Korea becomes worse due to the lockdowns, black markets are starting to play an ever-increasing role in people’s lives as the sanctioned markets run out of goods.

As they have been described to DailyNK, “Street merchants are people who get by barely by selling food, water and other goods near railway stations, bus terminals, or markets with a lot of pedestrians…Even among all merchants, they’re the most underprivileged.”

The loss of revenue to these black markets, their inherent threat regarding the spread of outside information and cultural trends, and the fact they’re populated by the more vulnerable population make them an easy target for the regime as the recent crisis grows.

After a few years of expanding freedoms, the experiment with sanctioned market activity seems to be entering a more challenging era. As The Economist stated in July 2019, “state media have called for more central control over investment and jobs in the name of fighting corruption. They also argue for the restoration of state control over the food supply and the revival of the public distribution system.”

Exacerbated by floods, the pandemic has only made the food situation worse, and markets are beginning to run out of products. The situation is so dire that Kim Jong-un himself addressed the matter, calling the food situation “tense” at a meeting of the Workers’ Party, and the United Nations and various NGOs have also been sounding the alarm.

Unfortunately, while the regime could take active steps to alleviate the threat posed by the virus and ease the food shortage, Pyongyang has refused delivery of any COVID vaccines and has expelled every NGO worker in the country, along with almost all foreign diplomatic staff. This makes it impossible for international aid to be distributed. But it also gives Kim the time he needs to finish his anti-reform agenda as the pandemic situation can be described to domestic audiences as just as dangerous as ever, especially in light of new variants.



Both common citizens and government officials have used the markets to make fortunes despite of the wide range of government regulations and economic sanctions. Through their informal trade relationships with Chinese partners and the creation of quasi-legal private-public enterprises, North Korea’s economy has been able to not just weather these challenges but has managed to grow (by as much as 4% in 2014).

However, North Korea’s closure of the border with China and Russia and the subsequent halt in trade due to COVID-19 has placed great pressure on the markets and their ability to get goods to the people. Inside sources have long been reporting on shortages of daily necessities like toothpaste and international organizations are anticipating massive food shortages should the border blockade continue much longer. But one thing is certain, after being closed off from the world for over a year, the markets and consumers are ready to reengage in the ground-level capitalism that has sustained the population for a generation…if given the chance.

Under a more liberal approach to economics in the first few years of Kim Jong-un’s rule, the markets continued to grow and standards of living improved as well. But as Kim rediscovers central planning and his love for authoritarianism in the wake of COVID, the condition the market system will emerge after the country reopens is in doubt.

However, as upwards of 50% of North Korea’s GDP is generated by private enterprises, if the regime truly wishes to put an end to market activity, it’s going to have a very difficult time putting the genie back in the bottle. I suggest that it is more likely the government will seek to further constrain the markets but will still recognize their indispensable nature in creating a growing North Korean economy.

Many of Kim’s orders recently have had to do with ideological and social correctness, purging impure elements, and stopping the flow of information – particularly among the country’s youth. He seems less concerned with the dollars (or won) being earned so long as they’re not connected to informational feeds that undermine the state and so long as the state receives its share.

Regardless, until international trade can resume, prices will keep rising and shortages will get worse. The North Korean people have shown themselves to be capable of weathering all manner of difficulties, but there always exists a breaking point. Kim is playing a dangerous game by prolonging the pandemic crisis and attacking market activities as even he doesn’t know where that breaking point is.

Over the years, North Korea has slowly reframed its national identity from one of a Marxist state to an ever more ethnonationalist one, centered on the perceived uniqueness of the Korean people. Kim Jong-un has continued this identity shift, stressing that any reforms made are not capitalistic or even based on the reforms taken in other countries, but are expressions of North Korea doing things “in our own way”.

Perhaps, if he can manage to separate the ideology and identity from the realities that are demanded by economic growth, he may be able to guide the country toward being a more prosperous state without losing the highly centralized authority the regime must keep. Then again, reforms never last long in the Hermit Kingdom and his recent actions do not inspire confidence.

Clearly, the misallocation of resources on things like nuclear weapons and missile tests slows economic growth. And the extremely poor state of the country's electrical grid, transportation systems, and healthcare network means North Korea is, in many ways, still trying to fully recover from the downfall of the 1990s, but economic progress could nonetheless be seen in the crowds of people pouring into markets both old and new. Crowds still gather in the midst of the pandemic as people struggle to maintain their livelihoods, but it seems that the regime is in no mood to help. 


~ ~ ~ ~

I have scheduled this project to run through to the end of the year, with a new article coming out roughly every 10 days or so. If you would like to support the project and help me with research costs, please consider supporting AccessDPRK on Patreon. Those supporters donating $15 or more each month will be entitled to a final PDF version of all the articles together that will also have additional information included once the series is finished. They will also receive a Google Earth map related to the events in the series, and can get access to the underlying data behind the supplemental reports.
Supporters at other levels will be sent each new article a day before it’s published and will also receive a mention as seen below.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, Rinmanah, and Russ Johnson.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Kim Jong-un's First Decade in Power - North Korea's Coming Out Party

Part IV - North Korea's Coming Out Party

Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump walking together during the 2018 Singapore Summit. Image Credit: Shealah Craighead, June 12, 2018, official White House photograph.



Hosting the Olympics for the first time is usually regarded as a country’s “coming out party”, letting the world see that they are capable of massive and complex infrastructure projects as well as having developed the diplomatic skills necessary to coordinate an event with tens of thousands of participants and countless visitors from around the world.

This was the case for South Korea in 1988 and China in 2008.

For North Korea, many view their coming out event as the year 2018 itself. In 2018, North Korea attempted to woo their southern cousins during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics at the beginning of the year and followed it up with a summit in Singapore with the United States on June 12. For the first time in history, a sitting North Korean leader and a sitting American president sat across from each other at the same table. However, when Kim Jong-un first ascended to power, few thought such a meeting would ever be possible.

Kim Jong-un had very little diplomatic experience during his short grooming period and the North Korean diplomatic corps was, naturally, dominated by those who had served exclusively under Kim Jong-il. Making matters more difficult is the very limited range of independence North Korean diplomats have to adapt to what the moment requires. Rather, they’re often limited to repeating talking points and must seek authorization for even minor changes.

This has handicapped the vast majority of exchanges with North Korea and has often led to the collapse of talks. Regardless, an election in the U.S. and the openness of South Korean president Moon Jae-in created the opportunity for Kim Jong-un to engage with the world much more than his father, the insular-looking Kim Jong-Il.

And so, the world witnessed something of a miracle in 2018, but that year has become bookended by assassinations and nuclear tests before and aggressive stances and missile tests since. How the miracle year came about and where things seem to be going in the aftermath is what I hope to share in this article.


Early Moves, Fire & Fury

Early diplomatic outreaches by Kim Jong-un’s new regime followed long-established cycles of provocation followed by promises to talk in exchange for aid or sanctions relief, only to be followed by a period of provocation again. This was the case with the ‘Leap Day’ deal reached on Feb. 29, 2012 that would have allowed inspectors into the Yongbyon nuclear research site. However, the agreement was discarded a few weeks later as North Korea announced they would launch a satellite into space which the United States viewed as a violation of the agreement.

This cycle continued through to the election of Donald Trump in Nov. 2016. Although, while still firing missiles and testing nuclear weapons, the election seemed to provide Kim Jong-un with an opening to reach out to the U.S. as Trump relied more on his personal relationships with people than he relied on previous policy decisions or protocol. President Trump had also made it clear that he was willing to talk to anyone, including Putin and Xi Jinping, regardless of human rights abuses, if it meant improved bilateral relations and avoiding greater conflicts.

However, this opening appeared to slam shut for Kim Jong-un following the assassination of his half-brother Kim Jong-nam. The 45-year-old Jong-nam had been living in self-imposed exile for years and spent most of his time visiting casinos in Macau, going to concerts, and living in luxury apartments. As Kim Jong-un took power, Kim Jong-nam began to openly criticize the hereditary succession and called on North Korea to reform its practices. This placed Jong-nam in the very dangerous position of being a possible locus of dissent for unhappy elites in Pyongyang who may also want the country to reform.

After Kim Jong-un had solidified his power within the country, he made the decision to take out this threat. On February 13, 2017, Kim Jong-nam was passing through the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia where he was assaulted by two women, with one splashing him with a liquid and the other covering his face with a cloth.

The women were from Vietnam and Malaysia and had been told they were taking part in a TV prank show, but it was no prank. They had unknowingly exposed Jong-nam to the deadly and banned chemical weapon VX. He died soon after despite medical treatment.

The resulting backlash led to multiple countries (including Malaysia) recalling their ambassadors and closing embassies, leaving North Korea more isolated than ever.

But while the world looked on in horror at the assassination, it was North Korea’s weapons testing that really got under President Trump’s skin.

Kim Jong-un tested four nuclear devices between 2013 and 2017, with each device being more powerful than the next. The United States’ intelligence community eventually assessed that Pyongyang indeed had the capability to produce a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could be mounted on a missile.

Following up on two nuclear tests in 2016, North Korea conducted a series of missile tests in 2017 that culminated in the successful testing of the Hwasong-14 on July 4 and a second test on July 28. The Hwasong-14 became North Korea’s first missile capable of hitting nearly all of the continental United States.

Celebrating the July 4 test, Kim Jong-un called the launch a “gift [to the] American bastards…” for the U.S. Independence Day holiday and told officials to “frequently send big and small ‘gift packages’ to the Yankees”.

These tests brought the North Korea crisis to a boiling point and serious discussions were held about attacking the country or conducting a ‘decapitation strike’ against Kim Jong-un. President Trump summed up his feelings on August 8, 2017 declaring, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States…they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” And, partially in response to the killing of Kim Jong-nam with a chemical weapon in a third-party country, the U.S. also relisted North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism that November.

It was under this shadow that South Korea prepared to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in the city of Pyeongchang. It was also at this point that back-channel discussions were ongoing to set up a new round of talks or even a summit to defuse the situation and avert war. After some uncertainty in 2017, North Korea had reached an agreement to participate in the 2018 Olympics on Jan. 9, 2018, but Pyongyang’s other aggressions were continuing and such a breakthrough event as a summit had yet to be formally agreed to by the time of the Games.


Onward to Pyeongchang

Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-Jong, sits next to South Korea president Moon Jae-in during a performance of the North Korean Samjiyon Orchestra in Seoul. Image source: Korean Culture and Information Service, CC 2.0

Although Kim Jong-un said in his 2018 New Years’ Address that “North Korea's participation in the Winter Games will be a good opportunity to showcase the national pride and we wish the Games will be a success”, their participation was still up in the air after North Korea had failed to meet a deadline, but then a final agreement was reached on Jan. 9.

North Korea’s agreement to take part in the games and have both country’s athletes walk in the opening ceremony together under the Unification Flag was a great step toward rebuilding trust and cooperation between each side of the DMZ.

At the same time, as during the 1988 Summer Olympic Games that were held in Seoul, it was also feared North Korea might seek to either co-opt the events or cause major disruptions. In the case of the 1988 Games, this took the shape of bombing Korean Air Flight 858 in the runup to the Olympics that killed 115 people. For 2018, Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono warned Seoul to be warry of any “charm offensive” coming from Pyongyang and there was even some backlash among South Koreans, as the Moon administration signaled that it was willing to give into North Korean demands including things that could be seen to intrude on South Korea’s own rights as a sovereign nation and on civil liberties.

Thankfully, the worst that happened was North Korea condemning the continued U.S. military presence on the peninsula and the military cooperation between Washington and Seoul. However, a kind of co-opting did happen in the form of Kim Jong-un’s sister – Kim Yo-jong.

The announcement that Kim Jong-un’s younger sister would serve as his envoy during the games helped to turn opposition into curiosity as a central member of the Kim family would be visiting South Korea in one of the biggest diplomatic moves since the Korean War.

Kim Yo-jong’s ‘cool personality' and appearance played well with the South Korean public and was evocative of the ‘Kim Jong-il mania’ that swept the country in 2000 following the first inter-Korean Summit as a result of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy that saw a dramatic, though temporary, rise in pro-North sentiment among the general public.

In this sense, Yo-jong helped open the door for future discussions and meetings between the two countries that would pave the way for the inter-Korean summit between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in on April 27, 2018. This move also built up her own public name recognition globally and improved her growing standing within the North Korea elite as one of the few people Kim Jong-un trusts the most.

As part of the 22-member government delegation sent to South Korea, Yo-jong was also joined by Kim Yong-nam, the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA). A number of civilians were also sent including the Samjyong Orchestra, which was formed to perform in South Korea as part of the overall celebrations.

During the period of the Olympics, Yo-jong attended the opening ceremony, watched a hockey match, and met with several South Korean dignitaries including President Moon Jae-in himself, during which she delivered Kim Jong-un’s invitation for him to travel to Pyongyang. And while Yo-jong did not attend the closing ceremony, SPA Presidium member General Kim Yong-chol did, continuing the highest levels of North Korean representation throughout the events.

In contrast to Yo-jong’s engaging behavior, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was noted as looking “stony face” during the opening ceremony, perhaps reflecting the Trump administration policy of ‘maximum pressure’ toward North Korea. However, relations would soon begin to thaw.


After a flurry of lower-level meetings in March and early April, on April 27 the first inter-Korean summit in eleven years took place. It was the first meeting between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in and the summit gave rise to the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

The Panmunjom Declaration was largely a reiteration of the goals found in previous agreements, with some previsions recalling the 2000 June 15th North–South Joint Declaration and the 2007 North–South Summit Declaration, namely to seek reunification on joint Korean terms, end hostilities, engage in economic cooperation, and develop a step-by-step process toward further cooperation and peace.

The Panmunjom Declaration did make some progress, however, in that it directly called for an official end to the Korean War (which is technically still ongoing) and gave a more detailed outline for how to accomplish the broader goals of the agreement. This included the creation of a North-South liaison office in Kaesong and connecting the countries through the Donghae and Gyeongui railways.

Additionally, both sides agreed to remove loudspeakers along the DMZ that have blasted propaganda into each country off and on for decades, and they agreed to put an end to sending balloons across the DMZ which is something North Korea, in particular, has long complained about.

The move against balloons, which are often sent across by South Korean civilian groups, would expose the South Korean government to considerable criticism by civil rights activists as the government signaled its willingness to prosecute citizens for sending anything over the DMZ, including money and USBs of popular television shows.

But while the domestic political issues took on a life of its own, both Koreas continued their engagement and two more inter-Korean summits were held in 2018.

At the same time, efforts were underway to bring an end to the rising antagonism between North Korea and the United States.


Working Toward a Summit

North Korea’s participation in the Olympics and the Panmunjom Declaration created an opportunity for North Korea and the United States to begin a period of détente. After the bellicose heights of “fire and fury” the year before, a South Korean delegation met with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang on March 5, 2018 to negotiate future moves toward peace.

Mere days after the Pyongyang meeting, South Korean officials were at the White House where President Trump met with South Korea national security adviser Chung Eui-yong and National Information Director Suh Hoon to discuss their meeting with Kim Jong-un. They then presented Trump with an invitation by Kim Jong-un to eventually meet, with the likely timeframe being in May.

However, as Ankit Panda laid out for the BBC, “There was something profoundly odd about the optics of this announcement. Three South Koreans… stood shoulder-to-shoulder speaking to eagerly-gathered reporters outside the West Wing. Without any American officials present, it very much placed this entire diplomatic initiative in South Korea's hands. One could easily walk away sensing that the United States wasn't entirely enthusiastic about this endeavor.”

This framing of the U.S. mood was indeed correct. Although President Trump accepted Kim Jong-un’s invitation “on the spot”, as the details of the meeting began to be planned, the United States reiterated its policy that North Korea must take “concrete and verifiable steps” toward denuclearization prior to any summit and that sanctions against the country would remain in place until an agreement is made between the two countries.

Kim Jong-un appeared to have foreseen these demands and preemptively placed a self-imposed moratorium on further nuclear tests and agreed it would dismantle certain missile and nuclear sites including at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, a test stand at the Iha-ri military base, and close the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. The moratorium had already been agreed to back on March 5, but Kim Jong-un didn’t make a formal announcement until April 20 saying, the country is doing this to “prove the vow to suspend nuclear [testing]”.

While this gave Pyongyang an air of sincerity as a good-faith actor, eager to follow through with the summit just a few weeks away, some analysts felt that the move had more to do with the fact that North Korea simply didn’t need to conduct any more nuclear tests as it had already accomplished what it needed.


During this time, South Korea was also meeting with China and Japan to continue laying groundwork and working out the ultimate details of the summit.

As opportunities grew through the Olympics and into March, Kim Jong-un held a clandestine meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 25-28, marking his first visit with the Chinese leader. During the two-day meeting, the leaders discussed matters of denuclearization and improving ties between the longstanding allies. This meeting was followed by others, all publicly announced, which ended up bringing China into helping to orchestrate the future Trump-Kim summit.

This was an important development as the Trump administration had insisted since the 2016 presidential campaign that China take a more direct role in resolving the nuclear issue and in upholding United Nations’ sanctions against North Korea.

Despite the trepidation on behalf of some in the administration, the U.S. began to take a more active role in setting up a summit. On April 1, 2018, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo went on a secret meeting in Pyongyang to talk about the nuclear issue and to help clear the way for the Trump-Kim summit expected in May or June as South Korea announced back in March. Of particular interest for the summit was trying to agree on a location. The Trump administration had offered four politically neutral sites, Ulaanbaatar, Stockholm, Geneva, or Singapore. It was also floated that Seoul, Pyongyang, or Panmunjom on the DMZ could host the summit.


Things seemed to be moving in a generally positive and forward motion until on April 29, 2018, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton referenced Libya as a model for how to deal with North Korea, as Gaddafi had given up Libya’s nuclear program for sanctions relief in 2002-03. Bolton had long been hawkish on foreign policy regarding North Korea and other “rogue nations”, and generally preferred military action to continued diplomacy.

Bolton’s hawkishness meant that his statement toward North Korea carried with it overtones of a threat, as despite the denuclearization agreement by Libya, less than a decade later, Gaddafi was under air attack by NATO forces as the Libyan Revolution raged on in 2011. He was eventually shot and sodomized in a drain culvert by opposing forces while trying to escape after the Battle of Sirte.

Pyongyang has often referred to Libya as an example of why one should never relinquish nuclear weapons and why North Korea can’t trust the United States, as the U.S. and the West eventually facilitated Gaddafi’s disposition and death (along with Saddam Hussein’s) despite their nuclear and WMD capitulation.

Indeed, Dr. Guo Yu, principal Asia analyst at the global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft said that Kim Jong-un has learned this lesson well, “We see in Libya and Iraq countries who gave up their WMD programs, and foreign power campaigns that led to a regime change,…To safeguard against that, North Korea [is] firmly in the belief that they need to have credible nuclear deterrent…”

So, whether or not Bolton’s comments were an unforced error or a less-than-subtle attempt to derail the summit process is up for debate. Regardless, with pressure from China and after some substantial “explanations” by the Trump administration, saying that Bolton was only referring to the positive outcomes of 2002-03 and not ultimately to regime change, the summit process was back on track.

This was especially true as tensions eased further after North Korea released three American prisoners it had been holding for as long as 31 months. Kim Dong-chul, Kim Sang-duk, and Kim Hak-song were released to the newly confirmed Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and landed at Joint Andrews Airforce Base in Washington, DC on May 10.

Despite the summit preparations having resumed, the risk of cancelation was always near the surface. In yet another ‘unforced error’, on May 17 President Trump threatened North Korea with “Libya’s fate” if a deal wasn’t made. Unlike Bolton’s comments earlier in the month, Trump’s comments weren’t a subtle or oblique threat to regime change. It was directly threatening war.

Trump’s words could easily be seen as hyperbole and another example of him not thinking before he spoke, but a few days later U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who was seen as a more thoughtful and reasoned person also echoed the threat, “this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong-un doesn't make a deal”.

This incensed the North Koreans and vice foreign minister Choe Son-hui said that the comments were threatening a nuclear showdown. Then on May 24, Trump called off the summit citing North Korea’s “open hostility” in a letter to Kim Jong-un. However, he also left the door open for continuing talks of a summit if Kim were to “change [his] mind”.

Ironically, May 24 was also the day that North Korea demolished the tunnel entrances to the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

By any historic standard of dealing with North Korea, this would have ended the entire thing. But North Korea almost reached out immediately, with Kim Jong-un saying, “We would like to make known to the US side once again that we have the intent to sit with the US side to solve problem(s) regardless of ways at any time”.

In another high-level meeting, vice chair of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, Kim Yong-chol, met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York City on May 30 to further negotiate the summit issue. He was the highest-level official to travel to the United States since 2000.

Then on June 1, President Trump announced that the summit would happen after all, following the "very nice statement" by North Korea sent to President Trump and other overtures. The location and date would be the same as announced (back on May 10) prior to the cancellation: Singapore on June 12.

How much of a problem the week-long cancellation caused to setting up the summit isn’t known, but both sides began final preparations without skipping a beat the moment the announcement to resume was made.


Singapore and Hanoi

Trump and Kim shaking hands on June 12 just before the start of their one-on-one meeting. Image source: Dan Scavino.

 Having the idea for a summit is one thing but planning it and figuring out how Kim Jong-un could physically get to the chosen location was quite another. Aside from the fact that Kim is a named individual targeted by sanctions and has been blamed for massive human rights abuses by the United Nations (which could prevent any ordinary person from traveling internationally), the DPRK national airline, Air Koryo, isn’t allowed to operate in the majority of international airspace due to safety concerns and international aviation regulations.

Although Kim has the use of a Soviet-era Ilyushin-62M passenger jet as a kind of “Pyongyang One”, the plane has been retired by all other national operators except for use in carrying cargo. Its age and the extreme distance of 4,700 km meant that Kim needed a different way to get to the summit.

After some negotiations and China playing on Kim’s fear of long-distance flights, it was decided that Kim would borrow a much more modern and safe Boeing 747 owned by Beijing, with the Ilyushin-62M traveling along as a transport for Kim Yo-jong and other officials. An Ilyushin-76 also traveled from Pyongyang carrying food and other items.

Venue scouting, security, deciding where the media events would be held, and other logistics were all finalized in June and included substantial assistance from the government of Singapore including the government’s agreement to pay for the hotel bills of the North Korean delegation. In the end, it is estimated that Singapore paid a total of $11.9 million to host the summit.


Kim Jong-un was the first to arrive, landing in Singapore in the afternoon of June 10. He was followed by President Trump who arrived in Singapore at 8:20 pm after having left the G7 meeting earlier than planned that was happening in Canada. Trump was excited for the summit and tweeted out, “It will certainly be an exciting day and I know that Kim Jong Un will work very hard to do something that rarely been done before. Create peace and great prosperity for his land.”

Before both men retired to their respective hotels, Kim at the St. Regis and Trump at the Shangri-La Hotel, Kim met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Trump met with him that Monday for a working lunch.

Monday saw a series of meetings between U.S. and Singapore officials and between North Korea and Singapore, as well as several press briefings. Kim Jong-un also took this opportunity to tour the city with his sister. Kim has been known to take part in the leisure and touristy facilities available in North Korea, like enjoying rides during the opening of the Rungna Peoples’ Pleasure Grounds in 2012 and visiting the country’s ski resorts. So it was little surprise that he would want to take one the rare times he left his homeland to play tourist for the day, as the following day would be all about business.

That Tuesday began with the sun shining and both men traveling to the summit venue at the Capella Resort amid heavy security. The official start to the proceedings was at 9:05 am and they met and shook hands for the first time. Afterward, a one-on-one meeting between the leaders was held followed by an expanded meeting involving various officials from both countries.

After the expanded bilateral meeting, the two men joined each other for a working lunch and then took a walk around the grounds of the resort where President Trump briefly showed off ‘the Beast’ to Kim who seemed very interested in the presidential limousine as US Secret Service agents tried to limit access to photographers from seeing too much of the notoriously classified interior.

Soon after, Trump and Kim sat down to sign a joint statement. Part of the statement reads, “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

It also included four provisions:

  1. The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
  2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
  3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
  4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

Although the statement didn’t bring about any brand new agreements and wasn’t legally binding, it was nonetheless an “epochal event of great significance in overcoming decades of tensions and hostilities between the two countries and for the opening up of a new future”.

The summit closed with a U.S. press conference where President Trump called the meetings a success and unilaterally announced the end of joint military exercises with the South Korean military without first consulting South Korea. He also expressed a desire for the eventual removal of all U.S. military personnel on the peninsula. These two things have long been sought after by North Korea but the U.S. had always resisted the moves until after a denuclearized North Korea. Trump, it seems, was about to give away the store.

However, despite the overall positive nature of the summit and the excitement for the future it generated, once Trump was back in Washington, the pragmatic realities of the situation sank back in.

Although claiming victory and tweeting that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat to the United States, his official actions told a different story. He extended Executive Order 13466 because “the current existence and risk of the proliferation of weapons-usable fissile material on the Korean Peninsula constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.”

Continuing with the undertakings, Mike Pompeo met with WPK vice chairman General Kim Yong-chol in Pyongyang in July, but according to the North Korean’s, U.S. demands displayed a “gangster-like attitude”. Negative assessments of future negotiations that were held with Pompeo and other officials would continue to be made by North Korea, revealing deep differences between how each side viewed the proceedings and how they thought denuclearization should take place.

Concurrently, the regime still publicly claimed to hold out hope for a peace brokered directly between the two leaders.

Despite knowing that coming to peace with North Korea wasn’t actually going to be as simple as a summit and a few tweets, both men did heavily rely on their developing personal relationships with each other to try to keep the process moving forward. Trump and Kim exchanged a series of letters with Trump even exclaiming that they “fell in love” during one political rally. Analysts often say that Kim Jong-un was playing on President Trump’s ego through effusive praise and using honorifics such as “your excellency”, nonetheless, the letters did seem to extend the life of the peace negotiations.

Still, more was needed. To try and avoid having the process stall out, plans for a second summit were confirmed by the White House on Sept. 11, 2018 to be held in the “not too distant future”.

Kim Jong-un had been pushing for sanctions relief and disagreements with the U.S. over how much relief and when repeatedly became a key issue. The U.S. was also becoming frustrated by North Korea’s concessions to dismantle one nuclear or missile facility while continuing work at multiple others, all despite also saying that they no longer wished to test nuclear weapons.

These contradictions caused lower-level meetings to be canceled only to later be rescheduled. Even so, Kim said during 2019 New Years’ speech that he was willing to again meet with Trump anytime. Soon after, vice chair Kim Yong Chol traveled to D.C. to meet with Secretary of State Pompeo and President Trump.

Two months later, Trump told the world during his 2019 State of the Union address that a second summit would be held, this time in Vietnam on February 27-28.

Like his father, Kim Jong-un prefers to travel in one of his six armored trains. After the embarrassment of needing to borrow a Chinese jet to get to Singapore, Kim opted to use this slower (but far more luxurious method) of travel to Hanoi. He arrived at the Đồng Đăng railway station on Feb. 26.

The summit was held at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi on Feb. 27-28, with a one-on-one meeting held first followed by a dinner. While it seemed to have some initial success on the first day, it was abruptly ended on the second day with no further agreements reached.

Concessions, like shuttering the nuclear facility at Yongbyon, was sought by Trump and offered by Kim but the U.S. would not offer to do anything upfront, only after North Korea carried out its part of the agreement, leaving Kim with even less leverage should the administration choose not to end sanctions.

Contradictions in Trump’s demands and other statements had further added Kim Jong-un’s growing loss of patience, especially after Trump had also acknowledged North Korea’s ‘good behavior’ back in 2018, “The hostages are back. There have been no tests. There have been no rockets going up for a period of nine months, and I think the relationships are very good, so we'll see how that goes.” That good behavior had largely continued throughout 2019, so North Korea would naturally see itself as abiding by previous agreements.

The administration’s demands, however, were not viewed by Kim to be followed up with ‘corresponding measures’ such as permanently ending joint military drills with South Korea or easing specific sanctions. And it must be said that North Korea, whether earnestly seeking peace through denuclearization or not, did actively concede far more than the U.S. ever did.

Hanoi also underscored the fact that North Korea’s definition of “denuclearization” is somewhat different than America’s, with North Korea including the removal of nuclear-capable bombers from the peninsula, a nuclear no-first-use guarantee by the United States, and the quick removal of U.S. personnel from South Korea – all prior to North Korea giving up its last remaining nuclear bomb. And it underscored that the administration didn’t seem to realize North Korea viewed the world in different terms.

It can’t be said that the summit failed just due to the Trump administration, as North Korea’s public words and covert actions rarely lined up together, but the possibility of a summit without any new agreements could, in the words of Ankit Panda, be seen a mile away exactly because of these misunderstandings and lop-sided actions.

The view that total disarmament before sanctions relief was doomed to failure (and that an incremental arms control policy would bear more fruit) was echoed by Doug Brandow, a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, who said that “[Trump] apparently pushed for the full monty, an all nukes for all sanctions deal, which was never realistic.” And then he compared the US-DPRK summits to that of the US and the USSR at Reykjavik in 1986 saying, “A failure to agree does not doom the relationship. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev did not join in Reykjavik to eliminate nuclear weapons. But they ultimately agreed to other arms limitations and ended the Cold War.”

Making matters worse, it was later revealed by John Bolton that Trump had given Kim a note during the second day telling him to surrender all of his nuclear weapons and nuclear fuel to the United States before any sanctions relief. It was at that point that Kim Jong-un canceled the rest of the summit.

The Party Ends, Back to Isolation

In one last attempt at getting things back on track, Kim Jong-un sent Trump another letter. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry also released a statement calling President Trump the “supreme leader of the United States”; once again playing to his ego. Through these overtures, Kim asked for another meeting with Trump.

The final Trump-Kim summit was held on June 30, 2019. This trilateral meeting involved President Trump, Kim Jong-un, and South Korean president Moon Jae-in, but it was little more than a photo opportunity as President Trump stepped over the military demarcation line (the de facto border) at Panmunjom into North Korea. No further deals were made and the meeting only lasted a few hours.

Symbolically, this gave Kim Jong-un an enormous domestic boost as this was the first time a sitting American president had been on North Korean soil, but nothing of substance was achieved.

With Kim walking away with greater domestic legitimacy (having been the first North Korean leader to bring the Yankees to heel) and with denuclearization becoming an intractable issue yet again, the gulf between the two countries became even more clear.

Momentum toward a substantial, enforceable agreement began to stall even though lower-level talks continued, and as domestic forces in South Korea and the U.S. started to draw attention away onto other matters.

Even after President Trump eventually fired John Bolton, citing his Libya comments, tensions still rose. North Korea conducted missiles tests in August 2019 for the first time since November 29, 2017 and joint US-ROK military drills also began again.

But despite relations cooling between Pyongyang and the rest of the international community, the situation didn’t immediately devolve into disaster. Some of the agreed upon measures between North and South Korea were still carried out including the establishment of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office in Kaesong and on Nov. 24, 2018, the United Nations greenlit the inter-Korean joint field study on connecting the two countries via rail. The project’s groundbreaking followed on December 26 (although, there has been little additional progress).

And in one of the more visually dramatic moves of the 2018-2019 peace process, both countries carried out the demolition of several guard posts along the DMZ in late 2018 as a gesture showing their commitment to eventually dismantle the Demilitarized Zone.


Although bilateral relations between North and South Korea have improved in the last few years, particularly as Moon Jae-in has sought to maintain a personal relationship with Kim, things have not been without substantial controversy that could usher in more opposition politicians as elections are held in South Korea.

Creating particular consternation within South Korea has been Moon’s willingness to step on freedom of speech and other civil liberties in an attempt to appease Kim Jong-un. This includes banning sending balloons and leaflets across the border and cracking down on human rights activists. This has created a lot of internal pressure to change tactics regarding North Korea and made it more difficult for Moon to carry out his preferred policies toward the DPRK.


Evidence of continued hostile feelings and cracks in the process were obvious even throughout the summit process. Even though Kim Jong-un held three summits with President Trump and three with President Moon, the threats coming from North Korea didn’t stop. And sometimes, they were quite severe.

Following the summits, this boiled to the surface. As part of Kim Jong-un’s pressure campaign on President Moon, he had Kim Yo-jong write on June 13, 2020 what can only be described as an op-ed in her own name (an extremely rare occurrence in North Korea) threatening to pull out of the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration if activists weren’t stopped from sending balloons over the DMZ. This was followed up a day later by a statement from the Workers’ Party of Korea in support of the threats.

Another one of the threats was to shutter the Inter-Korean Liaison Office located in the Kaesong Industrial Region that had been established in 2018.

Establishing the office, which had been placed inside of an existing building, cost South Korea $8.6 million in renovation expenses and was meant to serve as a de facto embassy as neither country has formal diplomatic relations with the other.

The threats were soon seen through when on June 16, 2020, an explosion rocked Kaesong. The Inter-Korea Liaison Office had been blown up. The demolition occurred on what was the 20th anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit.

While South Korea said it would “respond strongly” if North Korea continued to raise tensions, nothing of note actually happened in retaliation.

And in protest to joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises that began on August 16, 2020, Kim had the Seoul-Pyongyang Hotline cut in September. The phone line connects the two countries and is also supposed to allow for direct communication between both leaders in the event of an emergency. It wasn’t until October 4 that the hotline was confirmed to have been restored.


Rising tensions on the peninsula are only one facet of North Korea’s slide back toward belligerence and isolation.

North Korea has tested missiles 39 times since the start of 2019, returning to the pre-2017 era when Kim Jong-un had tested more missiles than Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il combined. Reports on their nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, Kangson, and Pyongsan all prove that North Korea’s nuclear program is still very much active. And the United Nations has released multiple Panel of Expert reports detailing North Korea’s illicit trade activities ranging from smuggling in oil to selling coal and counterfeit goods.

North Korea also took an active role in isolating itself further in response to COVID-19. Scores of diplomatic staff and their families have been forced to leave the country, even via hand-powered, open-topped rail trollies in freezing weather.

It has been theorized that the real reason behind this expulsion of foreigners is to further limit the flow of information into the country which strengthens the regime. Additionally, Pyongyang has engaged in crackdowns on “non-socialist behavior” as several new restrictions, particularly aimed at North Korean youth, have been implemented since the start of COVID.

COVID also provided a raison d'etre to further attack market activities and strive for greater centralization, with Kim reversing his more open attitude toward economic activity in his early days.

Even the World Food Program left the country, leaving North Korea with no UN or NGO workers in the country and almost no foreign nationals of any kind.

While 2021 has provided minor hope that the ‘blockade’ of trade and travel won’t last forever, as preparations are being made to resume limited trade with China, there are no signs that North Korea will soon return to a pre-COVID state.



Stories of national salvation have helped propel and preserve the Kim family’s power. Kim Il-sung saved the country from the Japanese and later from the Americans. Kim Jong-il saved the country from being overrun during its weakest point since the Korean War as a result of famine and the collapse of international communism. Kim Jong-un, it would seem, has been attempting to save the country for its own future. He has focused on ‘moving the revolution forward’ to create a North Korea capable of standing alone on the world stage with both military credibility and diplomatic credibility.

He has thus far accomplished this through parallel tracks of weapon development and diplomatic maneuvering; however, the lasting effects of Pyongyang’s engagements are in question. Although Kim did manage to buy time and to bully South Korea into passing some very undemocratic laws, he seems to have squandered much of the goodwill and international willingness to cooperate through his actions since the summits.

While the country is preparing to resume trade with China as the threats posed by COVID-19 wane, the broader international community appears to be even less willing to engage as Pyongyang’s illicit activities have been described in ever greater detail and as North Korea gets back to missile testing.

Despite the initial promise of the summits with South Korea and the United States, North Korea seems to be just as isolated as a decade ago.

Complicating matters has been that the new Biden administration has been slow to develop its own North Korea policies and didn’t appoint a special representative for North Korea until May 21, 2021. This limits Washington’s ability to engage with the country and made high-level talks far less likely for the near future. This leaves Kim up to his own devices to drive events, as he continues to search for ways to bring the U.S. back to the table in the hopes of ending sanctions and gaining other concessions.

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I have scheduled this project to run through to the end of the year, with a new article coming out roughly every 10 days or so. If you would like to support the project and help me with research costs, please consider supporting AccessDPRK on Patreon. Those supporters donating $15 or more each month will be entitled to a final PDF version of all the articles together that will also have additional information included once the series is finished. They will also receive a Google Earth map related to the events in the series, and can get access to the underlying data behind the supplemental reports.

Supporters at other levels will be sent each new article a day before it’s published and will also receive a mention as seen below.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, Rinmanah, Russ Johnson.

--Jacob Bogle, 11/30/2021