The dramatic developments in the Korean Peninsula, over the last few weeks, read like pages of a racy thriller. In a span of just two months, the breeze of détente instead bugle of conflict, has begun to blow. Gone are the threats of death and destruction, replaced by the soothing sound of dialogue, peace and reason. No wonder the Korean theatre has always had observers rivetted.
Consider the following. Out of the blue on January 1, Kim Jong-un (KJU) offered to South Korea (ROK) talks and participation in PyeongChang winter Olympics. The latter acted with equal alacrity and, within weeks, the North and South teams were seen marching together under a common unification flag.
Next, in a deft move, KJU despatched his younger sister Kim Yo-jong with a personal letter of invite to President Moon, for a summit meeting. In the process, she became the first member of the Kim clan to set foot on the South Korean soil. In no time, she had South Koreans swooning over her ‘poise, smile, simplicity, dignity’ and numerous other accolades that the smitten media showered on her. She did not utter a word in public, shook hands with Vice President Pence and held a luncheon meeting with President Moon. It was a PR coup for Pyongyang.
No sooner had she gone back and the winter games ended that a return visit of ROK special envoys was announced. A five-member delegation led by NSA Chung Eui-yong and including the head of Korean CIA Suh Hoon, arrived in Pyongyang on 5th March.
They met the portly and reclusive North Korean leader over dinner. Hitherto, during his six-year rule, KJU had never emerged for a meeting with a visiting foreign leader or delegation. Setting aside protocol (as the guests were without their spouse) and contrary to Korean custom, KJU also had his wife participate in the dinner. He was clearly on a charm offensive towards his southern neighbour. An enigma herself, she has been a subject of unrelenting speculation in ROK.
The sides have since announced a summit at the end of April at the peace village in DMZ. North Korea (DPRK) now ‘understands’ that the forthcoming US-ROK annual joint military exercise will take place. The visitors were assured that there would be no further provocations by DPRK, for the time being. And what’s more, KJU agreed to unconditional talks with the US and even dangled the carrot of denuclearisation if his regime’s security is guaranteed.
President Trump was prompt to tweet –‘Possible progress being made in talks with North Korea. For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned. The World is watching and waiting! Maybe false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!’ USA and ROK have been trying to present a united facade, but they are far from being on the same page. Trump has little patience for diplomacy and Moon is wary of his temperamental American counterpart.
It may be recalled that quite recently North’s official newspaper Rodong Sinmun had thundered – ‘Hoping that the DPRK would abandon its nuclear programs is as foolish an act as trying to wish seas to get dried up’. (Japan Times, March 5, 2018). KJU trusts no one and no nation, other than his WMD arsenal and own instincts, honed by three generations of Kims during their 65-year-long uninterrupted reign.
Pyongyang has also drawn the requisite lessons from the fate that had befallen Saddam Hussain and Qaddafi, one of which is that WMD is the insurance for survival. Thus, no security guarantee would be good enough for him.
Then why this huge climbdown? The noose of sanctions had begun to tighten. The squeeze had begun hurting DPRK’s fragile economy. The nation’s diplomatic isolation was growing. A number of countries had downgraded ties. The Chinese lifeline was becoming tenuous. Hence, there was an urgent need to deflect pressure, buy time and make a pitch for easing sanctions and humanitarian assistance. Somehow a wedge had to be driven between ROK and USA. And what better way than to offer a summit to President Moon, as no ROK leader can resist the temptation of making history.
All this sounds surreal? Yes, because it is indeed too good to be true. The only imponderable is whether the deceptive thaw will last weeks or months. Nevertheless, this round squarely goes to Kim Jong-un.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)