Keeping Summit Hopes Alive Suggests Kim Jong-un May Need a Deal

Still, his apparent willingness to continue diplomatic efforts does signal that Mr. Kim, 34, is under pressure to satisfy rising expectations in North Korea for economic gains and shake off the painful grip of sanctions.

While largely depicted as a nuclear provocateur in the outside world, Mr. Kim is determined to be the face of a modern and more open North Korea at home. He has erected new buildings and repainted old ones in Pyongyang, the capital, attended a concert by a South Korean girl band and let a state orchestra play American pop music.

Mr. Kim has also sent party officials to China to learn its economic policies, and has even admitted to other failures during his supposedly faultless leadership, like a botched satellite launch in 2012. When he met with South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, last month and invited him to Pyongyang, he asked Mr. Moon to fly there because North Korea’s roads and trains were in such “embarrassing” condition.

Keeping Summit Hopes Alive Suggests Kim Jong-un May Need a Deal
Keeping Summit Hopes Alive Suggests Kim Jong-un May Need a Deal

The contrasts between the North and South are particularly stark. North Korea generates a tiny fraction — less than 5 percent, by some estimates — of the electricity that South Korea does, leaving passengers stranded for hours in immobilized trains because of widespread power shortages, according to defectors from the country.

The dueling economic realities of the two countries are on clear display from space: Even now, nighttime satellite photos show the southern half of the Korean Peninsula splotched with bright lights, while Mr. Kim’s North is shrouded in darkness, with only a pinprick of light indicating the location of Pyongyang, where the nation’s elite lives.

Without a doubt, North Korea has come a long way since the 1990s, when mass starvation stalked the population and the country was so energy-starved that travelers camped out in stations for days waiting for trains.

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