This article is the third in a series, trying to make sense of where we’re at with North Korea right now and what is really going on. Ambitious or what? Fools rush in, as the song says.
Each article is self-contained, but reading the earlier ones first may help to follow the overall thread. I began, as one must, with Kim Jong Un – and how he began. He’s a man with a plan, in three stages, but many of us missed that. The world misunderestimated Kim at every turn.
First, he had to cement his power at home. That took four years, inevitably focused inwards. Ha, many sneered. Greenhorn, hermit! Doesn’t go anywhere. He won’t last long. Wrong.
Next, he did turn outwards. In 2016-17 Kim scared the bejesus out of us with a reckless but effective flurry of ICBM and nuclear tests. Change of cliché: Cue evil Bond villain bent on global domination. Wrong again. Just rendering the DPRK impregnable.
Mission accomplished, this year Kim stopped snarling and switched on the charm. A U-turn? No way. This is phase three. It looks very different, yet it builds systematically on phases one and two. Kim now feels, and is, finally secure enough to start acting nice.
My second article mulled this in general terms, drawing two conclusions: one historical, the other methodological. Taking the latter first, the overused H word (hermit) really does lead us badly astray. We imagine or impute an essence, when really it’s just a knowing, cunning ploy.
As witness a key fact, now widely forgotten. Kim’s father Kim Jong Il followed a very similar playbook to make his own entrance on the global stage in 2000. How are memories so short?
This year Kim has played an absolute blinder; never putting a foot wrong
From unseen man of mystery who never met anyone, to beaming jolly good fellow. Clinking glasses with Madeleine Albright, respecting his elder Kim Dae-jung, wisecracking with the cream of Seoul’s press barons: this earlier Kim makeover in many ways anticipates what his son is doing now. So we shouldn’t act surprised, but rather study that precedent for lessons.
But back to the present. What exactly has Kim Jong Un done in 2018, diplomatically? And how did he do it? In one sense this is familiar territory: fresh in the mind and indeed still work in progress. Yet it is not too soon to look for pattern and sequence, so as to draw lessons.
PLAYING A BLINDER
At the risk of repeating myself, and of annoying hawks who hate to hear Pyongyang praised, once again I doff my hat to the young marshal’s strategic genius. As sporting hacks in my country would say, this year Kim has played an absolute blinder; never putting a foot wrong.
(That wasn’t inevitable, or even likely: young quasi-monarchs who inherit absolute power and brook no criticism often foul up badly. Their arrogance goes unchecked; no one dares rein them in or tell them when they are wrong and/or overreaching. As witness Saudi Arabia…)
Very swiftly, Kim Jong Un has achieved an astonishing diplomatic turnaround.
A year ago North Korea was a pariah. After six years in power, Kim had never been anywhere nor met any other head of state. But just look at him now: three summits each with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and China’s Xi Jinping, and the first ever with a U.S. President – all in a mere six months. More summits to come, we’re told, on all three fronts – and with others too, such as Putin. A total transformation, achieved with minimal concessions in return. How did he do it?
I wouldn’t be surprised if Kim’s files include a memo somewhere, with three pithy headings akin to those in the subtitle of this article.
Seduce Seoul. Tempt Trump. Square China. Those were clearly the three main objectives, and that was the right order. Sequencing was key.
The first was easy. Moon Jae-in and his cohorts were a known quantity in Pyongyang, from contacts during the Sunshine era (1998-2007). Yet initially Kim kept Moon on tenterhooks, only playing his Olympic card at the last minute. Why not sooner? Because that way Moon had no option but to say yes – which he would have done anyway – and then work feverishly to ensure that both the Games and other joint activities were a success, as they duly were.
A year ago North Korea was a pariah
This isn’t the place to fully evaluate the new inter-Korean détente as such. It is substantial, even if much of it reprises forms of contact seen before under Sunshine. But new ground is being broken too, especially on the military front at the DMZ. These are weighty topics. If I bracket them for now, it’s simply to focus on the bigger picture, which is our concern here.
SMALL FISH, BIG FISH
In that context, by starting with Seoul Kim was using a sprat to catch a mackerel. The fish he really wanted to reel in was the one in the White House. To hook Trump, Kim needed Moon’s help, and he got it in spades. He also had to figure out how to play Trump, which maybe isn’t too hard: Flattery will get you everywhere. (Dotard? Who said dotard?)
Moon, perforce, does the same. Do the two Korean leaders compare notes on this, I wonder?
Trump was duly hooked. Singapore kicked off a weird bromance unimaginable a year ago: its warmth (“I love the guy”) undimmed by Pyongyang’s not actually doing any denuclearizing. Again, this isn’t the place to examine the new U.S.-DPRK relationship in detail. Later in this series we shall of course return to the key question of where, if anywhere, all that is headed.
First Moon. Then Trump. And then, or rather inamong, Xi Who Must Be Squared. Having for six years taxed Xi Jinping’s patience with WMD tests, cold-shouldering China while relying on its tacit support, Kim knew when to change gear.
He could hardly make up with Seoul, let alone take the unprecedented and risky step of meeting with a U.S. President, without ensuring that Beijing was onside.
So Kim did what he had to do. Some won’t like this comparison, but there is a long history of Korean leaders dutifully trekking to China. (No, I didn’t say vassal.) Six years of no visits at all, then three in as many months: quite the turnaround. And don’t you just love all the lips and teeth stuff: how they swore eternal friendship as if that six year hiatus never happened!
Yet again (sorry if the caveat grows tiresome) this isn’t the place to fully analyse the revival of Sino-DPRK relations. Revival sums it up.
Kim got all he wanted – even a posh plane to fly to Singapore in. More importantly, China has pretty much given up pretending to enforce UN sanctions, and is now hastening to build or rebuild economic and political links. Result!
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
Nice work, eh? Kim Jong Un’s diplomatic haul in 2018 lacks the breadth of his dad’s in 2000 (itemized in my last article). But that was then, and this is now. In the current conjuncture the point is not quantity but quality. The U.S., China and South Korea were the three key powers Kim had to reach out to. And so he did, with signal success in each case.
As noted above, these processes are very much ongoing on all fronts. Kim is still supposed to visit Seoul this year, though Moon sounds less sure about the timing – surely too tight now – than the MOU. Whenever it is, such a visit will be a very big deal, truly historic – if it happens.
Meanwhile Trump says he expects to meet Kim again in January or February, with three sites under consideration (such a tease). And Xi Jinping reportedly told Moon Jae-in at the APEC summit in Port Moresby that he will “make time” to visit Pyongyang during 2019. He seems in no hurry, interestingly. Maybe he wants to see lips and teeth more fully in sync first.
North Korea, in under a year, has gone from friendless outcast to belle of the ball
There also appears to be less rush with Russia than one might expect. In 2019 Kim and Putin will surely meet, but who will visit whom? Again, don’t forget the past. Earlier this century Putin wooed Kim’s dad – those famous train trips! – for three years, but then he gave up.
Next year Kim Jong Un’s summitry may become less intensive but more extensive. It already embraces Cuba, whose new leader Miguel Diaz-Canel visited Pyongyang last month.
Who else? Pope Francis, maybe? Moon Jae-in (again) talked that prospect up after he visited the Vatican, but we shall see. No other European leader is keen. As Moon may have been dismayed – but should not have been surprised – to find on his recent visit to the continent, European leaders remain skeptical of North Korea. Quite rightly they want to see some action.
Kim may get more joy in Asia. Still-communist Vietnam, where foreign minister Ri Yong Ho went recently, and Laos are both possibilities. And Mongolia has issued an invitation.
Indeed, in 2013 Mongolia’s Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj was the first foreign leader to visit the DPRK after Kim Jong Un took over. But he didn’t get to meet Kim.
There could be no clearer sign of how radically Kim Jong Un has transformed North Korea’s diplomatic isolation that even Abe now wants to get in on the act. Somehow one suspects that Kim may keep Japan’s premier waiting a while.
Then again, the $10 billion or so in colonial compensation which has long been notionally on the table, if and when the DPRK and Japan ever tie the knot, must be a factor in Pyongyang’s calculations. That yen would be handy.
Northeast Asia’s new diplomatic dance is intricate indeed. In principle, just about anyone might get into bed with anyone else these days. And North Korea, in under a year, has gone from friendless outcast to belle of the ball. Nice footwork, young marshal. Amazing, in fact.
Can he keep it up? Future articles will ask whether momentum can be maintained in these peace processes – plural, not singular – or if it might all end in tears.
We shall also pose an awkward and under-asked question: Is ‘peace’ being bought at too high a price? Stay tuned!
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Pyeongyang Press Corps
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 1853 words of this article.