Barely a few days after the New Year and already 2018 has been full of surprises. Few have been as surprising as North Korea’s new change of heart. The main story has been an innuendo-loaded spat with Donald Trump over who has the bigger nuclear button so some things haven’t changed. What has changed is Kim’s sudden olive branch to its southern neighbor.
After a year of nuclear tests, rising tensions and sanctions aplenty, Kim Jong-un pulled a Trump move by giving a speech that was both conciliatory and threatening, proclaiming that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities were complete and stockpiling could now begin. He insisted that his nuclear button was close at hand, prompting a measuring competition with Trump as Kim probably knew it would. Anyone watching the Republican primary in 2016, including the ‘small hands’ jibe, will know that size matters to Trump.
But for some, Kim’s desire for high-level talks with its Southern neighbor, its announcement of participating in the Winter Olympics and using a hotline that North Korea stopped answering two years ago are bigger stories. After months of brinksmanship, North Korea is suddenly ready to sit down and play nice.
The Olive Branch In The Clenched Fist
The big question is, why now? What has prompted this sudden shift? Is North Korea now happy with its successful missile tests? Are tighter sanctions starting to hurt? Is this part of some deeper game Kim is playing? Nothing is ever certain with North Korea and many predict that Kim’s peace offering will mean nothing after a new nuclear test which is bound to happen.
One theory is that, by directly appealing to South Korea, Kim is deliberately highlighting divisions in the South Korea-USA alliance. South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in has been a supporter of diplomatic talks with his unpredictable northern neighbor and now he is vindicated. The reopening of the hotline was supposedly given on Kim’s direct order with a statement that the regime was indeed sincere. How much that actually means is unclear: North Korea has a habit of breaking promises.
But Kim is happy with Moon’s positive response to North Koreans taking place in the Winter Olympics next month. Moon is hopeful that North Korea’s involvement in the Games will start a diplomatic thaw and help reduce tensions, just as the US and China found common ground over ping-pong diplomacy. Such a thaw in tensions will be most welcome to a world that spent most of last year bracing for World War Three.
South Korea welcomes this new olive branch, even in the clenched fist Kim waved at America.
Divide And Conquer
If the real aim was to divide South Korea from America, the result has been a fair success. In fact, Kim is probably smiling at how divided the administration is. Trump fires off a petty, childish tweet while Nikki Haley, the UN Ambassador to the United States, contradicts the cautious offerings of the US State Department. If anything, Haley’s remarks merely serve to muddy the waters and imply that America won’t even accept a yes as an answer.
The White House has good reason to be worried. The fact that Kim can potentially strike cities in the USA will worry Japan and South Korea, They have long been in North Korea’s crosshairs, but if the USA joins them, Kim has the perfect blackmail material. When push comes to shove, which will President Trump be more willing to protect: San Francisco or Seoul? Are Californians lives worth more than Japanese lives? If Kim’s missiles can reach Washington, all bets are off.
China will be encouraging talks to take place, hoping that their self-inflicted headache, North Korea, will allow them to focus on taking America’s place as the dominant diplomatic and military superpower. Even a minor success could tip the balance in China’s favor, even if it falls apart later.
Time For Peace?
But will this all pay off? North Korea is unreliable at best and revels in shows of strength. A missile test after the Olympics will destroy any goodwill built up at that point. In truth, Kim is probably playing for time as he builds up his nuclear missile stockpile. However, even if he is, it is also possible that Kim recognizes the limits of brinksmanship. North Korea cannot keep ratching up tensions, especially when Washington is run by a wild card. Sooner or later, something has to give.
There’s no telling what North Korea might demand or what they might ask for. Talks might break down almost immediately and everyone will go home, annoyed at having wasted yet more time.
It’s important to remember that Kim, like Trump, is talking to two audiences: his domestic audience which loves needling America and the international audience which prefers words to actions. Mixing the two messages up, as Nikki Haley seems intent on doing, could have disastrous consequences.
But, whatever his motives, Kim Jong-un is pulling back from the brink and offering a way towards dialogue. He wants North Koreans to play at the Olympics in South Korea so he can cheer them on before he sits at a table and opens up negotiations.
Perhaps this is North Korea’s ‘New Year, New Me’ moment. Here’s hoping it lasts.