2018 has been nothing short of surprises, especially on the Korean peninsula. After years of internal power consolidation, purges, heated exchanges with the rest of the world and breakthroughs in ballistic missiles (and probably) nuclear weapons, Kim Jong-un has left the Hermit kingdom at the invitation of China’s President Xi Jinping.
Following much speculation last week, Chinese state media confirmed that a mystery visitor – arriving aboard an armoured train - was none other than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, his wife and a high level delegation. The trip marks Kim’s first known trip, albeit ‘unofficial’ outside of North Korea since he assumed the reins of power after his father’s death in 2011. That the trip was made under an intense high security detail with deafening silence and secrecy, only to be announced after the North Korean leader had returned to Pyongyang was no surprise. The events taking place on the Peninsula are a build up to a tumultuous pivot in relations between the two Koreas, the United States and the rest of the world.
This isn’t just any random occurrence. Kim must have been incredibly comfortable that no one back home would challenge his authority or make a move to overthrow him while he’s gone. This new jet-setting Kim is confident, assertive and stands rather tall (pun intended). He’s putting on his ‘big-boy’ pants and playing the role of statesman, doing photo ops with President Xi Jinping and playing host to South Korean officials and pop singers to demonstrate that the olive branch he’s extending is genuine.
Kim and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea will meet for the first time on April 27, inside Peace House, a South Korean building inside Panmunjom - (a truce village on the countries’ border.) This will be the first time a North Korean leader will set foot in the South since the Korean War, a historic event which will serve as a building block for the Trump-Kim summit.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is either a diplomatic genius or an amateur who’s likely to fall prey to one of the most high profile international relations chess games of the century. Moon should be credited for breaking the ice after spotting an opportunity to bring North Korea to the table during Kim’s annual New Year’s address, and grabbing it with both hands. The ongoing ‘diplomatic détente’ between the two Koreas began in the run-up to the Winter Olympics and was reinforced by Kim sending his younger sister Yo-jong to Seoul as part of a high level delegation to the Olympics. Following up on that, President Moon sent in two of his high level Cabinet members, national security head Chung Eui-yong and his intelligence chief Suh Hoon. The image of them cozying up with the North Korean Supreme leader was a powerful message of hope for reunification and a historic breakthrough in dialogue on the Korean Peninsula with regards to North Korea’s nuclear programme. Moon has been strategically playing the role of honest broker, handling both Kim and Trump at the same time.
There’s a lot at stake. Firstly, the political careers of both Trump and Moon would likely take a hit in the event that this goes south. So far Kim has the element of surprise and is holding his cards closer to his chest while making sure that he controls the narrative and sets the ground for conditions favourable to him. He will also tread carefully with any deals or commitments to ensure that he doesn’t make too many compromising concessions. Kim clearly sees his nuclear weapons as having conferred a certain degree of status, hence the boldness in travelling to Beijing and standing beside Xi, himself a leader of a nuclear power state and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Moon and Trump will need an exit strategy that doesn’t ‘seem’ like an exit strategy lest Kim accuses them of negotiating in bad faith. China’s role
North Korea has been the subject of international debate for a long time and effectively secluded from the rest world courtesy of its dynastic rulers, the Kim family and its unwavering determination to become a nuclear state, a persistent thorn in North Korea’s relations with the rest of the world. On the African continent, only a few such as former President Ian Khama of Botswana often spoke out against North Korea’s military provocations and condemned their systematic human rights violations. Kim’s Beijing trip marks a first step on the global stage for a leader who has been shunned as a pariah, but who has also executed a deft diplomatic offensive.
This isn’t a moment to exhale a sigh of relief yet. It’s hard to predict how Kim will act in the next few months. Dangling denuclearisation and playing ‘international statesman’ might be a way for him to weaken global sanctions against his regime and somehow condition the world into accepting North Korea as a legitimate nuclear state. It may all be a game. Draw US and South Korea to the negotiating table, buy some time then shut down negotiations accusing the US and South Korea of negotiating in bad faith, then show the world that you have a deliverable intercontinental ballistic missile.
For Trump, if this entire dialogue works out, his foreign policy might just get the much needed nudge in the polls and he’ll go down in history as the ‘guy who sorted out North Korea’. It will be an affirmation for one of his campaign promises of ‘so much winning.’ His ‘maximum pressure’ strategy and pressuring China to squeeze out Pyongyang economically may just work out after all.
For South Korea’s Moon, this is both historic and personal. President Moon is the son of refugees that fled North Korea aboard a United Nations boat in 1950 at the start of the Korean War. Moon has prior experience with attempts to bring North Korea to the table when he served as Chief of Staff to President Roh Moo-hyun in 2007. Then, they were successful in bringing Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong-il to the table. For small countries that have little clout on the international stage like Botswana, a successful breakthrough on the North Korean issue would validate their long standing calls for a rules based international system that protects human rights and peace. These talks are a huge gamble with a communist state that’s hard to read, but they may avert a world war at the end.
*Bakang Ntshingane is a Motswana post-graduate student at Chonbuk National University in South Korea with a focus on international trade policy and economic diplomacy.