Capricious, audacious, shrewd and merciless, yet enigmatic. These words are how South Koreans have branded North Korea’s supreme leaders over the seven-decade history of conflicts on the peninsula. The third and present ruler Kim Jong-un adds one remarkable feature, his superb acting skills.
Of late, our extremely competitive TV channels gave the North Korean leadership almost as much exposure as the president of the Republic of Korea, both in frequency and air time. Therefore, we could closely follow the young North Korean dictator as he appeared at events over the last few months in the capital city of Pyongyang and provinces, in Beijing and Dalian of China, and in the truce village of Panmunjeom.
One does not need particularly sharp eyes to note his changing facial expressions on different occasions, such as sitting in an extraordinary session of the Workers’ Party presidium, reviewing a military parade at the Kim Il-sung Plaza, meeting with Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping, and holding a historic summit with President Moon Jae-in.
Kim, 35, or 36, carried an air of sincerity in his meetings with Moon, 65, and Xi, who turns 65 next month, but he was more relaxed in his tete-a-tete with South Korea’s leader at Panmunjeom, especially when their get-together progressed into an exclusive promenade and a dinner party.
Xi received Kim in the highest honor before and after the inter-Korean summit, but the visitor behaved like a student discussing a serious subject with his professor.
Having seen Kim’s rather affable gestures at Panmunjeom on April 27, South Koreans are curious as to how the head of an assertively nuclear-armed state will act in front of the world’s most powerful nation in Singapore on June 12. He will have to use the best of his performing ability to portray himself both as a defiant warrior and an angel of peace.
Pyongyang has already been testing the confidence and patience of Seoul and Washington. The North has resumed verbal attacks on South Korea and the US over national security adviser John Bolton’s so-called Libya-model resolution and a joint air exercise. Pyongyang’s abrupt cancellation of an inter-Korean high-level meeting was the first abrogation of a clause in the April 27 Panmunjeom Declaration, although some experts here downplay it as a usual disruption tactic to win maximum concession.
Past experiences warn us to be prepared of many hurdles to be set up by the North on the road to denuclearization. It made last-minute changes to agreed schedules and attached new conditions to hard-won accords. In 2000, on the eve of President Kim Dae-jung’s departure for Pyongyang for the first-ever inter-Korean summit, the North notified the Blue House of a 24-hour postponement of everything without explanation. It was later revealed that the action was due to a delay in Seoul’s remittance of cash aid to Pyongyang.
The White House may be assured that President Trump, a well-known master of deals, can handle the North Korean dictator with optimum use of flexibility as well as straightforwardness. However, from the point of view of Seoul, it is uncertain whether Trump can muster enough help from aides well-versed in the North Korean modus operandi.
In the South, the long absence of direct contact with the North under successive conservative governments has made inter-Korean affairs experts a dwindling species in the intelligence community and administration offices. There is discomfort arising from the perception that the former liberal activists filling many positions in the presidential staff may believe they can better tackle North Korean negotiators because they have an in-depth understanding of their ideology and philosophy.
Inter-Korean dialogue began in earnest in the early 1970s under the goal of reunifying the nation but based on separate schemes both in the North and South to consolidate their respective ruling systems. After Seoul completed the so-called “Yushin (revitalizing reforms) Constitution” and Pyongyang installed the Kim Il-sung Constitution, the false detente came to an end. Inter-Korean contact resumed in the mid-1980s but Seoul’s hollow dream of opening up the North only helped it spur its nuclear development program.
The 1994 Agreed Framework between Pyongyang and Washington, bartering the North’s halt to its nuclear program with joint energy aid chiefly by South Korea and the US, was one of history’s bad examples of mutual insincerity toward a bilateral pact. Construction of two light-water reactors for the North stalled while Pyongyang pushed a clandestine uranium enrichment program, leading to a complete breakdown of the agreement.
Throughout the on-and-off six-party talks that started in 2003, the North successfully cheated other participants, who coined the term CVID -- complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (of a nuclear program) -- but failed to translate it into reality. Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, conducted a nuclear test in 2006 and then made a show of destroying a cooling tower in the nuclear complex in Yongbyon in 2007.
Eleven years and five more nuclear tests later, Kim Jong-un has invited international press to watch the permanent decommissioning of an underground nuclear test facility in Punggye-ri this week. The spectacular event, if it happens, will at best be an event to inform the North Korean people that their country has become a nuclear-armed state and demand that the international community treat the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as such.
It will mark the victory of deceptiveness over the disunity and naivete of the international community. Coincidence or not, China rose to G-2 status during the time when North Korea advanced to virtual nuclear power status. The new superpower should henceforth be far more responsible about ensuring global nuclear security than in the past, when it simply played host to a multilateral conference.
By now it has become clear that the Donald Trump model will guarantee the continued existence of the Kim dynasty -- perhaps with connivance at its dire human rights conditions -- and an international aid package with the aim of making the North as affluent as the South. It will be a long, hard process given the history of deceptions in political negotiations on the peninsula.
Trump has three years to finish the game, while his young counterpart has no such time limit. Seoul’s best role is to help Washington understand how frustrating it will be to make a deal with North Koreans whose mentality still calls for a variety of other descriptive words than those listed above.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He was chief of overseas government information service during the Kim Dae-jung administration. – Ed.