Nobody predicted the whirlwind of events that have taken place on the Korean Peninsula in the past few weeks. On Friday 27 April, at 9:30am, the young dictator crossed the demilitarized zone to shake hands with Moon Jae In. This was the first time since the armistice of 1953 that a North Korean leader has visited the South.
Kim’s behaviour seemed almost jovial, with the young dictator announcing the closure of Pyongyang’s nuclear testing facilities and apologising to Moon for waking him up with his missile tests. This friendly sentiment was replicated in Kim’s meeting with new US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he suggested that North Korea would relinquish its nuclear weapons program completely. Events seem to have taken such a positive turn that Moon suggested Trump receive a Nobel Peace Prize; the latter after all has been awarded for much less.
However, while some may dub this a ‘Nixon goes to China’ moment, it’s far too early to pop open the champagne, or a celebratory Diet Coke in Donald’s case.
Kim’s sudden ‘change of heart’ does not indicate America’s diplomatic initiative, but a pre-planned strategy to ensure his own survival. Kim is an international pariah at the head of a regime responsible for some of the greatest human rights abuses of the 21st century.
It is imperative that he maintain the security of his regime domestically and internationally if he is to afford the luxuries of his predecessors and die of natural causes.
Until recently, more traditional methods have been employed to achieve this aim, such as arbitrary detention, public executions and spontaneous missile launches over Japan. Crippling economic sanctions however, and the rumoured collapse of North Korea’s nuclear test site have led Kim to employ a charm offensive while he picks up the pieces of his ailing regime.
It is Pyongyang’s relationship with Beijing, not Washington from where the substance of North Korea’s newfound foreign policy derives. The last thing China wants is a reunified Korea with American bases on its borders. Therefore, regime survival is in Beijing’s best interest too. China needs a valid pretence to resume the precious economic exports that the North needs for domestic stability without receiving scorn from international observers. To achieve this, Kim’s regime must gain the trust of the international community.
The belief that Kim will genuinely disarm bears the same credibility as the belief that North Korean officials uncovered a unicorn lair in 2012. Along with enmity towards the US, propaganda has ensured that nuclear weapons have permeated the public consciousness as a defining attribute of North Korean society. Stripping the army of its prestige by derailing its coveted nuclear weapons program would surely weaken Kim’s domestic legitimacy in the eyes of his generals and the general public.
While the conclusion is obvious, the question of whether Kim’s behaviour is sincerely ‘warm and genuine’ shouldn’t be our primary concern. Instead, what matters most is that Kim sees the maintenance of this strategy as the most fruitful approach to ensuring the survival of his regime.
What may initially be a short-term strategy to relieve economic sanctions could evolve into a long-term policy if Washington treads carefully.
The historical failures of the Sunshine Policy have illustrated that it takes little for Pyongyang to scurry away into self-isolation and aggression, but the hope still remains that by maintaining ‘warm relations’ in the long term, the framework can be built for better relations in the future.
This authentic warmth could transcend the symbolic planting of trees and time zone changes to one day create the trust and conditions needed to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula.