by Graham E. Fuller
I may be naive but I get the feeling that something possibly profound is underway with the recent dramatic flurry of diplomatic activity surrounding the once reclusive leader Kim Jong Un; it could represent a turning point in the geopolitics of East Asia.
In the West we have long been presented with images of Kim that suggest an immature leader, flaky, even bizarre, out of touch with world realities. Indeed, many of his pronouncements over the past years have been couched in the antiquated ideology-speak of an isolated communist regime. Kim has also been bombastic and extreme in speech—sometimes matched by fiery US rhetoric. But Kim’s actions on the diplomatic level since the January South Korean Olympics have been impressive in both conception and adroit execution. He has demonstrated capabilities and a level of personal public international involvement not previously seen in any previous North Korean leader. He seems to relish it.
First came Kim’s charm offensive in sending his sister to attend the South Korean winter Olympics, offering striking contrast to the scowling and ungracious public presence of Vice President Pence. Then Kim’s expressed willingness to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, followed up by a surprise trip to Beijing to meet publicly with Chinese President Xi Jinping. In Beijing Kim received high-level treatment marking the dramatic smoothing over of longstanding chilly relations with Beijing whose leader had earlier even gone along with UN sanctions against North Korea. And finally came the highly choreographed and dramatic April summit between Presidents Kim and Moon in which body language and images seemed strikingly fresh. No doubt their many meetings over the days had been carefully scripted, but it still left a vivid impression of something new and more spontaneous.
Many seasoned Korean hands in the US warn us that we have seen all this before from earlier North Korean leaders, only later to find Pyongyang reneging on its commitments with negotiations turning out to be little more than a sham. That is true, although not all the blame for these diplomatic failures rests solely with North Korea. And a failure of the Trump-Kim summit certainly cannot be excluded; indeed the meeting may be scuttled in advance if both sides are too obdurate or feel they have too much to lose.
This series of diplomatic steps now unfolding are far more numerous, fast-paced, and publicly choreographed than we have seen before and involve symbolic progress even while concrete final results will only come later—if any. Kim Jong Un seems to be operating on a new strategy to change the whole game. It may be that he has simply come to recognize the brutal reality that North Korea finds itself at stark international disadvantage and under devastating economic and military pressures. His elaborate strategy over the past year seems predicated on first demonstrating North Korea to be a credible—and fearless— military nuclear power, one that has attained its military goals, and is now turning to diplomacy based on what he believes is his new negotiating strength—whether the US likes it or not.
Could Kim actually be willing to bargain away his nuclear capabilities in exchange for economic growth for his country and reentry into the world? This strategy does not lack rationale. We see here on the Korean scene something reminiscent of the style and drama of President Mikhail Gorbachev’s striking new departures in word, deed and style in the final declining years of the USSR before its collapse in 1991. Gorbachev was the first relatively young and flexible Soviet leader who perceived the future of the USSR to be increasingly without prospect and who was determined to overhaul the entire domestic system as well as Russia’s relations with the West. Most US experts on the USSR were skeptical at the time that Gorbachev was anything more than rewarmed old Soviet-style leadership; few believed that he could, much less would, dramatically change the Soviet system. Yet his personal dramatic break from old Soviet leadership style and rhetoric clearly presaged a revolutionary new outlook and vision.
For Kim the sobering thought would be of course that Gorbachev’s massive reforms and opening up of the system also brought down the Soviet Union within a few short years. And, whatever else Kim may be, he almost surely seems unlikely to dismantle overnight the most rigid and isolated communist system in the world; his own family’s future power and welfare are utterly at stake.
Furthermore, to open up the North Korean economy must inevitably bring with it pressures for broader political and social change, even as it did with the Chinese transition away from Mao Zedong’s erratic one-man ideological rule to an unrecognizably different, more collegial and more flexible Beijing today. But we cannot see inside Kim’s head: for what will he wish to be remembered in history as a leader of North Korea and its people?
US skeptics dismiss the talks and atmospherics and call for real results now: clear signs of the imminent total dismantling of North Koreas nuclear arsenal. Such an event would of course come only at the end of long negotiations, even though Kim dangles the prospect even now. But would he in the end be truly willing to relinquish what he calls his “treasured (nuclear) sword” that he has so sacrificed to achieve? His sword has indeed likely protected him from what otherwise what might have been swift US action to “take him out.”
But it’s not just about Pyongyang. Equally problematic is this: would Washington itself ever agree to withdrawing its own forces from the South and accept denuclearization—indeed even eventual unification— of the two Koreas?
Despite the complexities, there are grounds for some modest optimism about where this path-breaking diplomatic pas de deux could go. Under any circumstances it will be a long, slow dance likely extended over many years to come. And much can go wrong in the process. In choosing as his interlocutor President Trump, Kim is perhaps facing the wildest card of all. Such a meeting between the two men once seemed inconceivable, more like some skit out of Saturday Night Live. And Trump is arguably more unpredictable than even Kim, whose recent actions demonstrate a certain growing logic.
On the other hand, Trump might see this as a huge opportunity to make his own mark on history with a new opening in the Korean Peninsula so long dangerously deadlocked in confrontation. By now even Trump has grown more invested in the process and the preliminary summit plans have so far survived the initial cold scrutiny of Mike Pompeo in his discussions in Pyongyang.
And finally we have the issue of Trump’s “controllers.” Neoconservatives and liberal interventionists in Washington are profoundly uncomfortable that “irresponsible actors” could permit some kind of detente on the Korean Peninsula that would inevitably lead to an eventual military (and nuclear) withdrawal of US forces from South Korea and further diminish the US strategic role in northeast Asia. Such an event would indeed represent a net setback for US hopes to perpetuate its traditional domination of the geopolitics of East Asia. (Yet such hopes seem ever more unrealistic.)
China would likely develop greater influence in the Koreas than ever before, at least on the economic level. But a Korea on the way to unification would also represent a more powerful and independent-minded Korea for Beijing to have to deal with. Still, Beijing will place top priority on almost any deal that facilitates the withdrawal of US military forces and bases on China’s doorstep. Russia too, also bordering on Korea and a longtime diplomatic player in Korean affairs, will strongly seek some rollback of the US military presence in northeast Asia. And, depending on the nature of any settlement, it seems as if most younger South Koreans might favor such a gradual North-South rapprochement. Of all regional powers, it is Japan that will likely be the least enthusiastic, at least under its present more hawkish prime minister Shinzo Abe (perhaps now weakening and out of step in this Korean game.)
If the Trump-Kim summit comes off—and neither leader seems likely to want it to collapse— the immediate outcomes are far from clear. Most likely it will be strong on theater, personalities, deliver a formal end to the Korean War, and offer some suggested roadmaps to further negotiations. But merely opening the doors to ongoing dialog, new elements of good will, minor confidence-building measures achieved and a gradual roadmap for future negotiations, especially between the two Koreas—all represent a major regional innovation. Even old Cold War paradigms and frozen hostilities cannot be nurtured forever.
It would be a seriously regrettable if Washington’s elites should now find themselves hoping that this whole Korean gambit will fail. Yet some want to deny Trump any possible prestige from the exercise, while others are unwilling to see the US position in Northeast Asia weakened by a peace that requires the US to lessen its strategic military presence and bases.
If both Koreas are willing to move along a gradual path of unification acceptable to regional players, should the US block their process?
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his first novel is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” His newest novel is BEAR, a novel of the Great Bear Rainforest and Eco-Terrorism. (Amazon, Kindle). Reprinted, with permission, from grahamefuller.com