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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
Korea has always required deft diplomacy to survive in a tough neighborhood. Geopolitical reality, as with Poland, has not been very kind to Korea over the centuries – placing it at the crossroads of several Great Powers. These Powers never hesitated to bully Korea and trample across its territory in their endless quests for regional hegemony.
Thus the ancient Korean proverb arose: “when whales fight shrimp get broken.” The key measure of any Korean leader has traditionally been to use diplomatic finesse as a shrimp to keep the whales swimming around Korean waters at bay.
Some, like the hapless Queen Min, who sought a protector from encroaching Meiji Japan in the form of a declining Chinese Qing dynasty, failed miserably. She was unceremoniously dragged out of a palace by Japanese paramilitary forces, reportedly hacked into pieces with swords, and then set afire in a pine forest.
Others, like Kim Jong Un’s famous grandfather, Kim Il Sung, played the game of thrones with great skill. Kim took advantage of the Cold War Sino-Soviet split to play the two Communist behemoths off against each other to North Korea’s considerable advantage.
And when things appeared to be going south over nuclear issues with the United States in 1994, a dying Kim Il Sung pulled Pyongyang’s irons out of the fire by negotiating a last-minute deal with the Clinton Administration — through the good offices of visiting former American President Jimmy Carter.
So when unknown, inexperienced and not-quite-thirty Kim Jong Un arrived on the scene after his father Kim Jong Il’s death in late 2011 there was a big question mark: how would the reportedly Swiss cheese-eating and Chicago Bulls-loving boy wonder do on the world stage?
The first six years were not very promising. Secluded like the Korean proverbial frog-in-a-well in his Pyongyang palaces, the Young General failed to travel abroad even once and got into a nasty tiff with Pyongyang’s main supporters, the Communist Party elders in Beijing.
While foreign envoys were turned away, Kim chose to limit his meetings with foreign devils to mainly hanging out with the former professional basketball player and bad boy Dennis Rodman.
When a new American President Trump arrived on the scene in 2016, Kim greeted him with a volley of rocket launches combined with nuclear tests. Trump responded in 2017 by denouncing Kim at the United Nations, among other places, as “Little Rocket Man.” East Asia looked like it was headed for a security crisis that would eclipse the brinkmanship in 1994.
FROM FIRE AND FURY TO FALLING IN LOVE
Then something remarkable happened. The frog jumped out of the well. The Young General emerged on the world scene and began traveling abroad in short order to meet with his counterparts — key players on the Korean peninsula.
He held a series of summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, seeking to turn on the spigot again of extensive South Korean economic assistance — aid which had been reduced to a dribble during several years of tension. Kim, at his first of three 2018 summits with Moon, took the unprecedented step of being the first North Korean leader to cross the DMZ into South Korea since the Korean War.
From Pyongyang’s point of view, however, Moon Jae-in may now have already served his main purpose – creating a diplomatic thaw after the “Rocket Man” era and then serving as a conduit for Kim Jong Un to pursue the Golden Fleece of North Korea: a direct face-to-face meeting with the occupant of the White House.
Thus, it should come as no great surprise that Kim Jong Un, in a speech to the North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly in April, dismissed Moon’s mediating efforts as “officious” and condemned South Korea’s “sycophancy” toward the United States. The first whale had already been successfully harpooned.
The breakthrough in Kim’s courting of Donald Trump was also apparently helped along by First Daughter Ivanka who attended the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February 2018.
The South Koreans, recognizing the Habsburg aspects of diplomacy in the Trump era, reportedly wined and dined Ivanka as they pushed forward the idea of a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea – similar to the Nixon-goes-to-China moment.
Soon after Ivanka’s return to Washington, in March 2018, President Trump abruptly reversed course on North Korea policy and declared that he would meet with Kim Jong Un, asking rhetorically at a political rally “who else could do it?” (Again shades of Nixon.)
From Pyongyang’s point of view, however, Moon Jae-in may now have already served his main purpose
Additionally, thoughts of a Nobel Peace Prize for Dad were possibly dancing in Ivanka’s head after her South Korean visit, thanks to possible whispers in Seoul. (After all Kim Dae-jung got a Nobel Peace Prize for meeting a North Korean leader, right? Please forget about the $500 million payoff.) President Moon is on record as publicly stating in April 2018 that President Trump “deserved” the Nobel Peace Prize for his North Korean efforts.
The Japanese, not to be left out in the cold in the perpetual Korean-Japanese intramural diplomatic rumble, also got into the Nobel Peace Prize promotion. The respected Asahi newspaper, quoting multiple Japanese government sources, reported in February that the U.S. government had “informally” asked Japan to nominate Trump after his June 2018 Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un.
Prime Minister Abe did then, in fact, write a letter on President Trump’s behalf to the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Kim Jong Un, no shrinking violet himself, had craftily figured out that in Trump World it is “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
He now had two of the whales that surround North Korea – Seoul and Tokyo – jumping through hoops to accomplish his goals. Kyodo News subsequently reported on May 2 that Prime Minster Shinzo Abe, perhaps feeling left out of the loop after the recent Kim-Putin summit, had expressed a willingness to meet with Kim Jong Un “unconditionally.”
In June 2018 in Singapore Kim Jong Un acquired the Golden Fleece. This was the goal which Kim’s own father Kim Jong Il came so close to achieving in the autumn of 2000 when it looked like then-President Bill Clinton might actually touch down in Pyongyang during his last months in office.
Kim Jong Un was able to demonstrate to the North Korean people he could achieve what neither his grandfather nor father could – a handshake with a sitting American President.
Kim even charmed the irascible Trump to such a degree in Singapore that the U.S. President told attendees at a political rally in West Virginia last September that “he wrote me beautiful letters and we fell in love.” So, like Captain Ahab, Kim moved toward harpooning another whale.
Things have not gone, of course, as swimmingly since. The second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi in February did not go well. President Trump again demonstrated his barbarian credentials by hopping into a car and driving off in a motorcade without even sitting down for the final luncheon that had been laid out by the Vietnamese.
There are some reports that a jet-lagged President Trump was particularly irritable that summit morning. He reportedly had stayed up all night in his Hanoi hotel fixated on the cable news transmission of Congressional testimony given by his erstwhile attorney turned bête noir Michael Cohen.
Pyongyang has kept its powder by not publicly criticizing the American senior partner in the Trump-Kim odd couple arrangement
So when the North Koreans did not immediately come to terms an already volcanic American President headed for the exits. Others – including the shrill North Korean propaganda machine, have laid the blame for the summit failure at the feet of duplicitous advisers to the king – in this case hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton and reportedly hardline Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Reuters reported on April 20 that North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui had criticized Bolton for “saying such nonsense” and for being “dim-sighted.” Pyongyang also indicated that it wishes to conduct diplomacy with “someone more mature” than Secretary Pompeo.
However, Pyongyang has kept its powder by not publicly criticizing the American senior partner in the Trump-Kim odd couple arrangement: Donald Trump himself.
And despite increasing tensions, including North Korea’s short-range missile launches and the American seizure of a North Korean vessel for sanctions violations, President Trump still seems on track with his Nixon-style, breakthrough diplomacy.
Even after some of the recent provocations, President Trump tweeted on May 4 that: “Anything in this very interesting world is possible, but I believe that Kim Jong Un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it. He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!”
Kim Jong Un may also take some comfort in the renewed reports that Bolton, dubbed “the moustache” by Trump, may be in trouble with his boss over his hawkish views.
In Trump World, non-family foreign policy advisers have a short shelf life – as Bannon, Cohn, Tillerson, McMaster, and Mattis discovered. The New Yorker published a recent piece quoting a former aide to John Bolton as stating that Bolton “deep in his heart” believes Trump is a “moron” – the exact word once used by former Secretary of State Tillerson that led to his downfall eight months later.
The final two whales in Kim Jong Un’s ocean are, of course, China and Russia. Kim, at least on the surface, has patched up his differences with China’s Xi Jinping in a series of four summits with him in China – the most with any foreign leader. Xi, who has been to Seoul, has yet to visit Pyongyang.
Kim was reportedly so irked by Xi’s 2014 Seoul visit that he attended a military exercise with pandas drawn as the targets. But he has now apparently determined for practical reasons that he needs China at his back as he engages in global diplomacy.
The harpooning of Donald Trump may yet remain in the realm of possibility for Kim Jong Un
Kim chose to first meet Xi in March 2018 before he met with either South Korean President Moon or American President Trump.
And in April, Kim held his first-ever summit with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok. (Putin had previously met with Kim Jong Il in both Pyongyang and Moscow.) The summit had advantages for both sides.
The Soviet Union was a primary economic and security benefactor of North Korea and there are potential business deals to be had. Second, Moscow is more sympathetic to North Korea’s peculiar diplomacy than most of the other former Six-Party Talks participants.
And, finally, Putin, seeking to make Russia great again after the calamitous decade that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, wishes to restore the Russian traditional role as a player in the Pacific. So Kim has begun his work of harpooning the last two Chinese and Russian whales.
The American whale, however, remains North Korea’s proverbial Moby Dick.
But with Trump’s confidence over his abilities in the “Art of the Deal” and with dreams of a possible Nobel Peace Prize, the harpooning of Donald Trump may yet remain in the realm of possibility for Kim Jong Un.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: White House