You know, there’s something weird about North Korea. Of course you know: That’s why you’re here. Any number of true sentences can, and do, begin that way or state this sentiment.
In-your-face weirdness is one thing. But sometimes the DPRK’s strangeness is less obvious. As you watch or ponder, something clicks and you think: Hang on. This, too, is not normal.
Another useful tip: Don’t just look at what is happening in North Korea. Look also, and think hard about, what’s not happening. As a French theorist might put it: Read the absences, too.
In that spirit, I venture to proffer an insight which, when it struck, made me leap from my bed before dawn and scurry to my desk to share with you. A small eureka? Let the reader judge.
My point is a simple one. How long has Kim Jong Un been in power now, since daddy died? Answer: 28 months. Two and a third years. Quite a while, really. Almost half as long as his neighbor/nemesis Park Geun-hye will serve in South Korea, where a stern law permits each president only a single five-year term; she’ll be gone by early 2018. In Seoul they got fed up with dictators trying to cling on forever, notably Park’s dad. He had nearly 20 years (1961-79) – and even then only stopped because his intelligence chief shot him. But that’s another story.
By contrast, Kim Jong Un could be whistling the Carpenters: He’s only just begun. Here’s a startling thought. If he lives as long as his grandpa and role model, Kim Il Sung, he could still be there in 2060. Somehow I doubt that, but we’ll see. Not me: I’ll be long gone by then. But younger NKN readers may be around. (Get in touch by ouija board, okay? I’d like to know.)
Maybe the idea that he has half a century still to come is one reason why Kim is taking some things slowly. The specific thought that struck me is this. In nearly two and a half years, KJU has not been anywhere yet. Nor has any other head of state yet met him, even on home turf.
Early days? 2+ years isn’t that early any more. Okay, give the kid time to find his feet and bat himself in. But that stage should be over now. High time to meet and greet, get out and about.
No sign of any of that. In today’s world this is unusual. Most leaders whiz around the globe, some maybe more than is strictly necessary. That’s how you keep your profile up, cut trade deals, keep allies sweet, make new friends, talk to foes, etc etc. It’s what you do, obviously. Indeed it’s what you’re there for, your raison d’etre. Home affairs is only half the story.
NO NORTHERN EXPOSURE
Her next door is a case in point, and should have the young marshal worried. In office so far for just 14 months, half as long as Kim, Park Geun-hye has already chalked up a formidable roster of summit meetings. This year alone so far she has met the leaders of the U.S. (twice), Japan, Germany, India, Australia, Netherlands, Canada and Switzerland. Oh, and Lithuania.
“Pappy and grandpappy were hardly great globetrotters either, but both did a bit better than this”
Last year’s roll-call is almost too long to list, but here goes. In reverse chronological order: Singapore (twice), Laos, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Indonesia, Belgium, the UK, France, Brunei, Poland, Australia (again), Myanmar, China (twice), Mexico, Peru, Vietnam, Russia (again), Germany (again), Kazakhstan, Italy, Mozambique, Uganda and the U.S. (Did I miss any?)
It helps, of course, if besides bilateral diplomacy you belong to regional or global groups and show up at their gatherings. That way you economize: A lot of other leaders are there too, so you get to meet them on the side. Like her predecessors, Park made sure to attend the two key autumn regional jamborees: ASEAN+3 and APEC. For good measure she added Davos, the EU and a newer top-table do, the Nuclear Security Summit; Seoul had hosted the last one.
That’s what the rival Korea is up to. The spry Park is twice Kim’s age, yet she darts around the planet keeping in touch. Whereas he just stays home and sits on his – whatever he sits on.
Is it in the genes? Pappy and grandpappy were hardly great globetrotters either, but both did a bit better than this – despite their fear of flying, which Kim Jong Un is not known to share.
Kim Il Sung must have taken the plane on his 1975 trip to an odd ragbag of nations: Romania, Algeria, Mauritania (why?), Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. A grainy video shows an affable Kim dancing in the streets of Bucharest. Bowie and Jagger it ain’t, but at least he made the effort.
Does his grandson do effort? In fact does Kim Jong Un do anything? Sure. On home turf he’s already proved adept at showing who’s boss, as in last year’s ruthless dispatch of Uncle Jang.
But even a society this solipsistic can’t stare at its own navel all the time. The DPRK exists in a world of nation states, and an era of globalization. That’s the environment Kim will have to know and negotiate, if he’s to have staying power. Diplomacy matters. Leaders need to lead.
“Were Kim to venture out, where would he go?”
Kim III should have a better basis for that than Kims I and II. Unlike them, he has known the outside world – the West in particular – from an early age, spending several years at school in Switzerland. A child of the modern age, in his youth he may have travelled elsewhere as well.
But not anymore. So why is that? Here are some hypotheses: a mix of general and particular.
Were Kim to venture out, where would he go? The West is closed to him, for nuclear reasons. But there must be some Mauritania equivalents out there, if he could be bothered. It mattered to Kim Il Sung to cultivate the Third World, as it was then called; not least so as to vie with South Korea for influence there. These days Pyongyang seems to have given up that fight (and now, hurling vile racist epithets at Obama will hardly open doors for Kim in Africa).
The big question mark and glaring absence is of course China. Why hasn’t Kim gone there yet, whereas Park Geun-hye has already been an honored guest and wowed them in Beijing?
I offer three theories. The obvious one is nuclear defiance. China is cross about this, and Xi Jinping – himself still newish in the job – can hardly welcome Kim as a guest without at least some smidgeon or semblance of movement on the nuclear front. It’s hard to see how they’ll get past that, especially if as rumored Pyongyang is even now readying a fourth nuclear test.
A second, intriguing suggestion I’ve seen in PRC sources (but now can’t trace) is that China’s leaders simply can’t stomach, or aren’t yet ready for, the protocol implications of welcoming the callow Kim as counterpart to Xi. The two may share a privileged background but Xi, like all China’s leaders, has had a proper career. His presidency was achieved, not merely inherited by genetic parachute. Still, they can’t go on not inviting him forever. Sooner or later it’ll be: Grit your teeth, hold your nose and welcome Comrade Kim! Eternal friendship, blah blah…
Hypothesis #3: It’s mutual. Kim too may feel nervous at the idea of meeting foreign leaders – who, unlike him, have actually done things and know stuff. Far easier to stay home and bark orders to cowering lackeys, than have to deal with people – cleverer people – on equal terms.
A harsh judgment? Two bits of evidence support it. First, last year a neighboring head of state took the trouble to pay a friendly call – but Kim Jong Un didn’t meet him. Perhaps that slight is why Mongolia’s Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj ended his visit by preaching the virtues of freedom and enterprise at Kim Il Sung University. (If you haven’t, do read or watch this. Remarkable.)
Maybe that in turn won’t incline Kim to meet any more pesky interfering foreign leaders. But snubbing Elbegdorj wasn’t smart. Mongolia wants to be a peacemaker on the peninsula. This would have been an easy, no-risk way for the closeted Kim to get some much needed practice in what it’s like rubbing shoulders with the power list, in the real world. But he flunked it.
Whom, conversely, does Kim Jong Un meet? No prizes there: to you for knowing, or him for judgment. In early 2013 two famous Americans showed up in Pyongyang. Which one made it into Kim’s diary? Not Eric Schmidt, who as executive chairman of Google is a serious global mover and shaker. But Kim famously did have time for Dennis Rodman: a former basketball player best known for eccentricity, self-regard, alcohol issues and general unpredictability.
Once might be overlooked, but darned if The Worm didn’t show up in Pyongyang again – twice. And again Kim Jong Un hung out with him. The week on the “7 star” luxury yacht; then back for the basketball game, Rodman singing “Happy Birthday,” and so on. All of it toe-curling at the time, and painful to recall now – even for Rodman himself, or so he now says. The more so if he really did, as reported, repay his hosts in vomit, urine and even excrement.
“The whole Rodman circus was a massive own goal for North Korea”
What was Kim playing at? Has he no PR advisors ? Or doesn’t he listen? Worryingly, might he really believe the guff spouted by Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) after Rodman’s last visit? Quoting “The New Worker, organ of the New Communist Party of Britain” – not a publication widely read or regarded, it’s safe to say – the DPRK’s official voice declared that:
“Rodman is trying hard to make the reality of the DPRK properly known to the world. His visit to the DPRK helped the world know a lot of new things about Kim Jong Un. This gave a big blow at (sic) the U.S. and bourgeois media which have hurled mud at the DPRK so far.”
The truth is the reverse. The whole Rodman circus was a massive own goal for North Korea. Did anyone really think better of Kim Jong Un after this? Can Kim be so utterly out of touch?
Maybe. This is all of a piece with thinking it’s smart or funny to caricature then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak as a rat being bloodily done to death. Or to call his successor Park Geun-hye a “capricious whore … dirty comfort woman for the US and despicable prostitute.” Or that appalling racist rant against Obama. I’ll say more about all that in another article.
Hurling foul insults like this, no wonder Kim Jong Un is Kimmy No-Mates. Who’d want to cozy up to a guy whose regime spews out filth like that? But does he get it, at all? I fear not.
Picture: Michael Donovan, Flickr Creative Commons