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Kim Jong-un’s peace offensive puts US and South Korea on the defensive

Hectic footwork in the Korean peninsula has already ignited enormous enthusiasm and anxieties about the two summits

opinion Updated: Apr 27, 2018 23:52 IST
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un heads a party meeting in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Pyongyang, April 9, 2018(Reuters)

The long-awaited summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un takes place on Friday — the same day China’s President Xi Jinping will host Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While the Xi-Modi informal summit is designed be a closed-door brainstorming for evolving broader strategic vision for the next 15 years, the inter-Korean summit has the clearly defined goal of denuclearising North Korea. It is also meant to set the stage for the first-ever summit between a sitting North Korean leader and a serving president of the United States.

What may leave Modi-Xi parleys at peace is not just the maturity displayed in their earlier summits but also the flamboyant style of Kim. Plus the murderous nature of nuclear weapons and mercurial personalities of those in command would keep most eyeballs glued to Trump tweets and Kim. Compared to the calm, duck-paddling style in India-China diplomacy, hectic footwork in the Korean peninsula has already ignited enormous enthusiasm and anxieties. A hotline between leaders of the North and South was commissioned August 20. A day later, Kim announced his decision to stop all nuclear and missile tests, and to close test sites. Such jaw-dropping unilateral concessions from a trigger-happy Kim were described as a “meaningful step forward” and a “big progress” by Moon and Trump. While sceptics allude to North Korea’s track record of similar pledges in 1994, 2005, 2007 and 2012 not fructifying and believe that Kim — who has used his nuclear programme to build his domestic legitimacy — is bluffing, conservative enthusiasts are celebrating this as a victory of Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy that may see him go down in history for having finally resolved the Korean nuclear crisis.

Meanwhile, Kim’s deft nuclear diplomacy has earned him enormous visibility (read recognition). His getting the royal treatment during his March 25-27 visit to Beijing could be the sign of things to come. Kim hosted Mike Pompeo, Trump’s CIA director, now nominated as secretary of state, over Easter holidays. This visit by Pompeo has drawn strong criticism while his talks on the Kim-Trump summit have pushed summit dates from the end of May to early June. In this hype, Kim has said nothing about giving up nuclear weapons or stopping tests of medium range missiles that can reach both South Korea and Japan. But given his incessant testing of nukes and missiles, and his verbal blitzkrieg last year, his halting of nuclear and missile tests is being labelled as major achievement for the Trump administration.

Having achieved his robust nuclear deterrence (that includes thermonuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles), Kim wants to draw political dividends from it. The plenary session of the Workers’ Party on “policy issues in a new stage” last Friday marked a shift in Kim’s “byongjin” (or dual push) policy of simultaneously pursuing nuclear weapons and economic development. Compared to “juche” (or self-reliance) policy of his grandfather and father, “byongjin” had been the buzzword ever since Kim took over the reins following the sudden death his father in 2011. Kim’s two summits with Moon and Trump will mark the second stage of his regime where having successfully completed building of his first objective of having a robust nuclear deterrence Kim plans to draw political mileage from it to strengthen his second aim of economic development.

Kim’s peace offensive has already put both Seoul and Washington on the defensive. Starting from his new year speech, Kim continues to surprise his detractors, throwing interlocutors off balance by presenting joint Korean teams at the Winter Olympics, sending his sister to lead that delegation and now halting nuclear and missile tests. Pyongyang, that has been demanding withdrawal of US forces from the Korean peninsula, has also not reacted to Moon’s assertion that this issues was not on the table. As usual, Kim continues to hold his cards carefully, fuelling curiosity among his adversaries, which now defines his nerve-racking adventurous nuclear diplomacy.

Swaran Singh is professor of international relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Apr 26, 2018 17:43 IST