Vilified as he was, however, Mr. Kim has also shown signs of being a reformer, granting farms and factories more autonomy, allowing more markets to open, and setting off a building boom in his showcase capital, Pyongyang. He exhorts his country to follow “international development trends” and “global standards” and even admits failing to deliver on his promise that his long-suffering people would “no longer have to tighten their belts.”
“My desires were burning all the time, but I spent the past year feeling anxious and remorseful for the lack of my ability,” Mr. Kim said in a nationally broadcast speech last year, a startling admission for a member of the family that has ruled North Korea with the help of a personality cult since its founding in 1948.
After meeting him, Mr. Moon called Mr. Kim “open-minded and practical.”
Nowhere is Mr. Kim’s dilemma better seen than in his policy of “byungjin,” or parallel advance, which seeks a nuclear arsenal and economic development simultaneously. Under that policy, Mr. Kim has rapidly developed his country’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, arguing that a nuclear deterrent would make his country feel secure enough to focus on rebuilding the economy. But the world has responded by imposing crippling sanctions.
“Kim Jong-un is at a crossroads,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, South Korea’s capital. “He could advance his nuclear weapons program further and face a deeper isolation and possible economic ruin. Or he could use it as a bargaining card to win normalized ties and a peace treaty with the United States and economic recovery.”
If Mr. Kim pursues the route of economic reform, energy and transport are the two areas where he most needs outside help. In his meeting with Mr. Moon, Mr. Kim admitted to the “embarrassing” condition of his roads and railways, South Korean officials said.
Trains running on electricity remain North Korea’s main means of transport, carrying 90 percent of its cargo and 60 percent of its passenger traffic, according to Ahn Byung-min, a senior analyst at the South’s government-funded Korea Transport Institute. But its rail systems are so decrepit that its fastest train, which runs to the Chinese border from Pyongyang, travels at 28 miles an hour. Other trains run at less than half that speed, Mr. Ahn said.