May 06, 2019

Welcome to Axios World, where two evenings a week we break down what you need to know about the big stories from around the globe.

1 big thing: What Kim Jong-un wants

Kim watches a 2017 missile test. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea continues to puncture President Trump's narrative that a landmark nuclear deal is on the horizon, most recently with Saturday's short-range missile test.

  • That was North Korea's first ballistic missile launch since 2017. It follows a meeting between Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as Kim's imposition of an end-of-year deadline for an improved U.S. offer on lifting sanctions.
  • Senior U.S. officials sought to downplay the significance of the test. President Trump tweeted that Kim Jong-un "fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea" and "does not want to break his promise to me."

The big picture: Washington Post correspondent Anna Fifield explores the question of what exactly Kim does want in her forthcoming book, "The Great Successor." It's a vivid portrait of an ambitious, paranoid young dictator.

Kim lives a life of immense power and incredible luxury.

  • He has an estimated 33 homes, 28 of which are linked to private rail stations. His primary compound in Pyongyang covers almost 5 square miles. From caviar to yachts, he has the best of just about everything.
  • An entire country has treated him with almost comical deference from at least his 8th birthday, when a party for the young "Comrade General" was attended not by children but by senior regime figures. Officials henceforth "bowed and deferred to [Kim] whenever they saw him," Fifield writes.

But North Korea is changing. The outside world is seeping into the country in the form of action films and South Korean soap operas. They're loaded onto USB drives, hidden in sacks of rice and sold at markets. Facades are collapsing. Expectations are rising.

  • “No one in North Korea can say that this young emperor has no clothes and expect to live. But almost everyone knows it, for the state once called the Hermit Kingdom is hermetic no more," Fifield writes. The regime thus survives primarily through "unparalleled brutality."
  • But under Kim, an expanding circle of elites has flourished. They've used their positions to become genuinely wealthy — "the North Korean version of Masters of the Universe, married to the Real Housewives of Pyongyang."
  • Kim has been particularly interested in keeping millennial elites happy, and indebted to him. They eat Italian and sushi, and they roam Pyongyang in stylish clothing. "Conspicuous consumption is clearly no longer a crime against socialism," Fifield writes.

Kim's primary focus upon taking office was security — dispatching with potential internal rivals and establishing North Korea as a bonafide nuclear power. Economic growth during Kim's first five years was mainly down to "benign neglect," Fifield writes.

  • Things began to shift in 2016 when Kim called the first party congress in three decades, acknowledged the country's food and energy shortages, and presented a five-year plan for economic development.
  • Two years later, weeks before the Singapore summit with Trump, Kim announced a "new strategic line" that placed the economy above the military as his primary focus. He toured the country to emphasize that the plan extended to everyone, not just the elite.
  • His performance in Singapore was “the clearest indication yet" that Kim "didn’t want to be a dull Stalinist dictator. He wanted to be a developmental dictator of the kind that has flourished in other parts of Asia."

Between the lines: Kim believes he needs "genuine economic development ... to have a shot at staying in power for years to come," Fifield argues. For that, he needs sanctions relief.

  • So is Trump right? Fifield writes that Kim will probably never give up his nuclear program, and certainly not all at once "to a man who'd been threatening to 'totally destroy' him just 18 months earlier."

"The Great Successor" will be released on June 11.

2. Life inside the regime

Is this the Red line? A scene from the Pyongyang metro. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

Some glimpses of life inside North Korea, from "The Great Successor."

  • “Every home, every school, every hospital, every public building and even every subway car must contain framed photos of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, which must be cleaned every day with a special cloth that is kept in a special box.”
  • “Every television channel is devoted to regime propaganda. ... Every household has a radio attached to the wall that can never be turned off and can never be turned to a different station.”
  • “North Koreans don’t celebrate their own birthdays, just that of their leader, and for many children, this is the only time in their lives they ever get a present.”

Fifield describes a neighborhood watch system, led in each district by "an interfering middle-aged woman."

  • “She is responsible for registering overnight visitors ... and often, together, with the local police, conducts dead-of-night raids to ensure there are no forbidden guests or that residents … are not watching South Korean movies."
  • "She inspects everyone’s state-issued radio to make sure they haven’t tuned it to anything other than the state station. She checks cell phones to make sure they don’t contain unauthorized music or photos from the outside world. She also encourages neighbors to report on one another.”

The bottom line: “North Koreans live in a system where every aspect of their lives is monitored, where every infraction is recorded, where the smallest deviation from the system will result in punishment. It is ubiquitous, and it keeps many people from even raising an eyebrow at the regime. ... There isn’t a single known dissenter in the entire country.”

Bonus: Two fun things

1. Fifield describes a scene of drunken debauchery with Dennis Rodman that includes Kim attempting to perform a karaoke rendition of "Get on Up" by James Brown.

2. Before the Rodman meeting, Fifield reports, an economist invited to discuss North Korea with then-President Barack Obama suggested he enlist another former Chicago Bull: Steve Kerr, the current Golden State Warriors coach who "spent some of his childhood in the Middle East with his professor father, so had some experience in tricky parts of the world."

3. Breaking: China tariffs set to balloon on Friday

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer says he'll put out a Federal Register notice tomorrow saying that the Trump administration will raise tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods from 10% to 25% and that importers will begin paying the new tariffs "the first minute of Friday," Axios' Jonathan Swan reports.

Why it matters: The business community and markets had been cautiously hopeful that Trump's Sunday tweets were an empty threat to create leverage over China. That's still possible, of course, but Lighthizer made clear he didn't expect Trump to change course.

Driving the news: Lighthizer said he still expects the top Chinese negotiator, Liu He, to come to Washington Thursday, though he said he hadn't spoken to the vice premier since he and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin left Beijing last week.

  • Mnuchin, who was also in the briefing, said he thought until recent days that the Trump administration was on the precipice of a "historic" deal with China — one that was hyper-detailed, running to almost 150 pages. 
  • He said the past week had brought a "big change in direction for the negotiations" with the Chinese backtracking on specific commitments that they had made in writing.

Mnuchin and Lighthizer wouldn't go into specifics, but they both stressed that China's team wasn't squabbling over small stuff.

Go deeper: Read Swan's full piece

4. Middle East news roundup

1. Israel passed information on an alleged Iranian plot to attack U.S. interests in the Gulf to the U.S. before national security adviser John Bolton threatened Iran with "unrelenting force" last night, senior Israeli officials tell Axios contributor Barak Ravid.

Bolton's unusual statement included news that the U.S. would move an aircraft carrier to the region.

  • The aircraft carrier in question was already on its way to the Middle East, but the statement still constitutes a change in U.S. strategy, argues Richard Spencer, Middle East correspondent for the Times of London.
  • “James Matts as defence secretary was hostile to aircraft carriers as projectors of power," Spencer writes. Bolton clearly isn't.
  • “Is it a bluff, or is it a real threat? Like most military posturing, there isn't a clear answer, that's why it's dangerous. Bolton is hoping that Iran will either pull back, or make a mistake.”

2. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AKP suffered a narrow but bruising defeat five weeks ago in Istanbul's mayoral race. Today, electoral officials gave in to his demands for a re-run.

  • This is a significant blow to Turkey's already damaged democracy. Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute calls it "the greatest distortion of democratic elections in Turkey since the country’s first free and fair polls in 1950."

3. "The Israeli military lifted protective restrictions on residents in the south on Monday, while Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group reported a cease-fire deal had been reached to end the deadliest fighting between the two sides since a 2014 war," per AP.

  • "The escalation had killed 25 on the Gaza side, both militants and civilians, while on the Israeli side four civilians were killed by incoming fire."

5. Africa: Ramaphosa seeking big mandate

Ramaphosa rallies supporters yesterday in Johannesburg. Photo: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

South Africa goes to the polls on Wednesday in the first election since the legendarily corrupt Jacob Zuma was forced out of office in February 2018.

Why it matters: Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Zuma both as president and as leader of the African National Congress (ANC) party, which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994. His supporters say he needs a big mandate to make a break from the Zuma era.

  • Most polls show the ANC receiving a majority, a result that would guarantee a new term for Ramaphosa (presidents aren’t directly elected). Still, the party of Nelson Mandela is far less popular than it once was and deeply divided.
  • “Ramaphosa needs a united ANC to achieve his agenda, but he doesn’t have that,” a veteran ANC politician told Reuters. “His enemies are going nowhere.”

One of the most polarizing issues Ramaphosa faces is land reform, which he has vowed to "accelerate."

  • 25 years after apartheid, land ownership is still tilted heavily toward white South Africans. As Ariel Levy reports in a New Yorker piece published today, many black South Africans are demanding justice, while some white farmers feel under siege.

Between the lines: Levy quotes someone who has discussed land reform with Ramaphosa:

“Cyril doesn’t believe in expropriation without compensation. He got stuck with it. For a state President coming into an ailing economy, taking over the reins from a dysfunctional kleptocrat, and then having to go on a world road show to convince investors to come into the country — while at the same time saying, ‘Expropriation without compensation’? It’s a nightmare!”

6. Asia: Moving Indonesia's sinking capital

What's not to like? Besides the pollution, congestion and risk of being wiped out entirely by rising tides. Photo: Ardiles Rante/Barcroft Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Jakarta is overcrowded, polluted, and sinking faster than any other city on Earth. Still, it was shocking when President Joko Widodo announced that it will no longer be Indonesia’s capital.

The final destination is not clear, and the capital may never get there. The Economist breaks it down:

  • “The relocation could take ten years. It is likely to face stern resistance, not least from Indonesia’s tycoons, who do not want to see the value of their Jakarta penthouses fall.”
  • “Civil servants will probably object too, because the most likely new site for the capital is something of a backwater.”
  • “Palangkaraya is a city of 260,000 in the province of Central Kalimantan, part of the Indonesian portion of Borneo. Whereas Jakarta lacks greenery, Palangkaraya has it in abundance: the city is in the middle of the jungle.”
  • “There is a titchy airport; the nearest seaport is a four-hour drive away, past an orangutan reserve. Much of the surrounding terrain is soft and swampy — not ideal for building skyscrapers. And when nearby peatlands burn, a toxic haze fills the air. Government officials may be sinking and choking in their new digs, too.”

7. Stories we're watching

"No, no. Just one feather in the hat, nothing too ostentatious." The coronation procession yesterday for King Maha Vajiralongkor of Thailand. Photo: Linh Pham/Getty Images

  1. Earth hurtles toward extinction crisis
  2. The world shrugs as China locks up 1 million Muslims
  3. Moscow plane fire kills 41
  4. Venezuela's Guaidó will "consider" U.S. military intervention if offered
  5. China's delicate May 4th anniversary
  6. Brunei won't enforce death penalty for gay sex
  7. Meghan Markle gives birth to royal baby


"You know, this is one area actually where I do not fault Trump. I think the idea of sitting down with Kim Jong-un is the right thing to do."
Bernie Sanders to ABC's "This Week" on how he'd handle North Korea

Thanks for stopping by — see you Thursday.