LONDON: Kim Jong Un normally inspires either fear or ridicule in the outside world.
But could there be much more to the corpulent North Korean leader than a predilection for murdering relatives and testing nuclear weapons? Might he be a secret reformer who is actually intent on disarmament and peace?
In their different ways both Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in — the presidents of the US and South Korea— are making big bets on the idea that Mr Kim is indeed a reformist. Last week, Mr Trump accepted an invitation to another summit with the North Korean leader with a friendly tweet proclaiming:
Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will both prove everyone wrong.
And this week Mr Moon is heading to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, for a three-day summit with Mr Kim.
Mr Moon’s hypothesis (or hope) is that the sheer unpredictability of Mr Kim and Mr Trump could actually create the conditions for peace.
In past decades, the politics of the Korean Peninsula have been all too predictable, with repeated efforts at diplomacy failing to end the armed deadlock between North and South.
Mr Moon’s aim in travelling to North Korea this week is to persuade the Kim regime to take dramatic steps towards getting rid of its nuclear weapons — and so convince Mr Trump to make some equally dramatic gestures in return.
The South Korean policy is based on a bold and risky assessment of Mr Kim, the man they refer to as “the young leader”. Mr Moon’s advisers theorise that the 34-year-old North Korean dictator is “fighting a lonely war within his own system” to press forward with denuclearisation.
They believe he is surrounded by officials who are wedded to the country’s nuclear programme, but that he is very different from his father and grandfather, the architects of the North’s militarised isolation.
The Moon government sees Mr Kim as a man who knows the outside world and wants to end his country’s isolation. And they think he understands that North Korea must scrap its nuclear weapons to achieve those goals.
Sceptics in both Washington and Seoul fear that Mr Moon is dangerously naive. They argue that the South Korean government is being suckered by a traditional North Korean bait-and-switch in which Pyongyang pretends to make concessions to ease international pressure and extract economic aid.
Sceptics argue that there is no way the North Koreans will ever scrap their nuclear weapons, which are the sole guarantee of the regime’s survival. They point to the unimpressive progress towards denuclearisation since the Trump-Kim summit in June as evidence that nothing has changed.
But to the South Korean government, the current frustrations are not proof that denuclearisation is doomed, but rather evidence that the process needs to be approached differently.
The Americans insist North Korea must scrap its nuclear weapons before sanctions can be lifted. The Moon government argues that the two processes must go hand-in-hand and that the North Koreans can only be lured down the path towards denuclearisation if they are offered inducements and encouragement along the way.
This approach will not persuade Mr Trump’s hawkish advisers — in particular John Bolton, his national security adviser. But that is where the South Koreans are hoping Mr Trump’s unorthodoxy may come to their aid.
They hope his impulsiveness and pride in the “art of the deal” may persuade him to overrule the “verification fundamentalists” in his administration and take some risks for peace.
CONTROVERSIAL MOVE FOR SEOUL
The Moon administration’s approach is controversial not just in Washington, but also in Seoul. South Korea remains a deeply-divided society, split between leftwing and conservative groups.
The two sides have set up camp outside the US embassy in Seoul, where ultra-conservatives carry banners urging Mr Trump to bomb North Korea, and far-left placards demand the removal of all US troops from the Korean Peninsula.
Mainstream conservatives in Seoul are also very worried by the current drift of the peace negotiations. They fear that a combination of Mr Moon’s dovishness and Mr Trump’s vanity could mean the US and South Korea make far too many concessions to the “young leader” — and that they will ultimately agree to a peace treaty that allows North Korea to retain its nuclear weapons but still benefit from the lifting of economic sanctions.
Hahm Chaibong, president of the Asan Institute, a leading foreign policy think-tank in Seoul, worries that the aftermath of a flawed peace deal would be an American military pullback from South Korea. This would allow the whole of the Korean Peninsula to be gradually pulled into the orbit of a rising China.
IN PURSUIT OF PEACE
But, for now, Mr Moon has more immediate concerns. It was only last year that the “young leader” was testing ballistic missiles and hydrogen bombs and that Mr Trump was threatening to respond with “fire and fury”.
The world faced the prospect of a war between two nuclear-armed states. Given those recent memories, it is hardly surprising Mr Moon is making every effort to widen the opening for peace.
It may prove to be a naive, long-odds bet. But it is certainly preferable to the alternative.
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