Like everyone, I’m striving to grasp and frame the strange new place the Korean peninsula is at right now. My first article in this series looked at how Kim Jong Un cemented his rule after inheriting power in 2011. He began with the home front: reining in the KPA, purging rivals, and restoring Party pre-eminence – under him, of course. This occupied his first four years.
From 2016 Kim turned to securing his external flank. A flurry of ever more powerful nuclear and ICBM tests rendered North Korea impregnable beyond doubt, while dangerously stoking tensions. Remember how nervous we were a year ago? It seemed things could only get worse.
Only they didn’t. The much misunderestimated maestro Kim, the artist formerly known as hermit, wrongfooted us all by declaring peace instead.
He did this in a subtle sequence, with three main targets – and to stunning success, in the short term at least. My next article will focus on Kim Jong Un’s grand coming-out party, and what the dazzling diplomatic dance really means.
But first, self-criticism: a North Korean practice not without merit. Bragging is the tiresome norm nowadays, yet we’d surely do better to admit errors and analyse where we went wrong.
In that spirit, 2018’s happy surprises require a reevaluation of what we might call the H-word: hermit. North Korea has fooled us again.
Also, memories are short. Kim Jong Un’s diplomacy this year is less startling and novel if you recall, as many failed to, his father’s interestingly similar outreach blitz almost twenty years earlier. Those form the twin themes of this article.
“Hermit kingdom” is a sobriquet originally coined about old Korea in the late 19th century, as the Choson dynasty decayed. Today it is often used of North Korea, not without cause. The DPRK state has always guarded its privacy fiercely, keeping the world at bay and a great deal hidden – including for a long time Kim Jong Un’s very existence, as our earlier article noted.
Yet such terms risk becoming clichés, trotted out too easily as a substitute for closer analysis. Granted, it was odd that Kim Jong Un went nowhere and saw no one for so long. A few cloistered months learning the ropes would have been understandable. But for six whole years Kim met not one single other world leader: friend or foe, at home or abroad.
Such a strange, perhaps unique period of solitude suggested solipsism, or worse. Hence the H-word appeared apt. What was wrong with this guy? “Kimmy No-Mates”, somebody dubbed him in these very pages. Oops. That would be me.
Was he shy? Inept? Uncouth? Nope, none of those. We were barking totally up the wrong tree. He was just biding his time: choosing his moment to make the biggest possible splash.
We should have known better, on two counts. First, after as many as nine years of schooling in Switzerland, Kim knew the wider world far better than his father or grandfather ever did. As a child he may have had more foreign friends than Koreans. They held no terrors for him.
PAPA WAS A PRETEND HERMIT, TOO
And second, speaking of daddy, we somehow forgot that 20 years ago Kim Jong Il had pulled a similar pseudo-hermit stunt. JI too, during his first five years in power (1994-99), didn’t go anywhere and met hardly any foreigners.
Given his known aversion to public speaking (unlike either his father or son), analysts put two and two together – and mostly made five.
With 20/20 hindsight, it’s clear that father, like son, needed several years to cement his power at home. Unlike his son, during 1996-98 Kim Jong Il also had to deal with a terrible famine: admittedly caused by his own policies, or lack of any, to cope with the economic body-blow caused by the ending of Soviet aid and indeed the end of the USSR. Grim times indeed.
But then a new century dawned. In 2000 the Dear Leader sallied forth, all smiles. Kim Jong Il visited Jiang Zemin in Beijing, then hosted a string of foreign guests. South Korea’s President Kim Dae-jung came North in June, followed in July by Vladimir Putin: himself new to power, and remarkably the first top leader from Moscow ever to visit Pyongyang in 55 years. (None had made the trip during the Soviet era; so much for comradeship. But that’s another story.)
Most remarkably, in October Kim hosted the U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Bill Clinton almost followed, but his term ran out before he could construct a deal on missiles (if only…) Enter George W Bush: no more missile talks, axis of evil, and the rest is history.
But let’s stay with 2000. The startlingness of Kim Jong Il’s emergence then was captured in a famous Economist cover that June. Kim is saluting; the caption reads: “Greetings, earthlings.”
Imperialists may mock, but this was DPRK diplomacy’s best year until 2018 – which in many ways it resembles. There was real substance, not just symbolism. Then as now, a Kim not only mended fences with semi-estranged allies in Beijing and Moscow, but also reached out – with unprecedented intensity, and no little success – to enemies, in Seoul and Washington.
Nor was that all. Urged on by Kim Dae-jung who hosted ASEM3 in Seoul that October, almost all west European states which had never recognized the DPRK, notably the UK and Germany, established relations in 2000 or 2001. (Except France, formally a hold-out despite having hosted a North Korean mission in Paris since 1968 and many other ties; but that too is another story.)
Other countries newly recognizing the DPRK at this time included Canada, New Zealand, Kuwait and the Philippines, while Australia restored its suspended relations.
Indeed, in terms of breadth Kim Jong Un’s outreach in 2018 is narrower – so far – than his father’s precursor effort in 2000. But this time breadth is not the point. As our next article will show, the latest Kim is carefully targeting the three powers that matter most: South Korea, the U.S., and China. Others can wait their turn, even Russia – surely soon – and especially Japan.
And you know, maybe breadth is never the point. One final self-flagellation. Twice in these pages, in 2014 and again in 2016, I contrasted Kim Jong Un’s supposed hermitude with his then South Korean counterpart’s tireless globe-trotting. Park Geun-hye rarely missed a global gathering, and I was impressed. That was the modern way. This was why Seoul was superior.
In broad terms, that is true of the two Koreas’ contrasting trajectories and divergent outcomes. Yet this particular comparison was wrong-headed. I mean, look at the two of them now. Park may have shown up at almost every last ASEAN and ASEM and APEC summit, but so what? None of it matters a bean now that she’s in the slammer, serving an outrageous 32 years.
Conversely, what did Kim Jong Un lose by missing six years of tedious chin-wags? Not a lot.
If anything, staying away and cultivating an aura of mystery only added to the impact when he finally made his big entrance. The world sat up and took notice, following his every move.
So I for one shall be more careful about using the H-word in future. My next article will look in detail at how Kim has come out this year, to whom, in what order, and why. Stay tuned!
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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