Sun, Feb 11, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Kim Jong-un begins his charm offensive

The North Korean leader is committed to two goals: Having ostensibly achieved his nuclear weapons program, he is charting a path toward economic development

By Yoon Young-kwan  /  SEOUL

After some two years of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the reprieve, however brief, that the Winter Olympics in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang promises to bring is more than welcome, but with some military experts estimating that the probability of war now surpasses 50 percent, complacency is not an option.

After years of accelerated missile development, which culminated in successful tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles and, allegedly, a hydrogen bomb last year, North Korea’s nuclear program has become an imminent threat not only to its neighbors, but also to the US. The response of US President Donald Trump’s administration — which has included unprecedented saber-rattling on Twitter — has escalated tensions further.

Yet, on Jan. 1, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for better relations with South Korea, before agreeing to participate in the Olympics. What accounts for Kim’s sudden extension of an olive branch to South Korea?

Since coming to power in 2011, Kim has been committed to a policy called the “Byungjin line,” which emphasizes parallel goals: economic development and a robust nuclear weapons program. With one of those goals now ostensibly achieved, Kim has shifted his focus to securing new economic opportunities for North Korea’s sanction-battered economy.

For example, the sanctions imposed in September last year on textiles, coal and other exports are said to have reduced North Korean exports by 90 percent. According to South Korea’s central bank, North Korea’s economy grew by 3.9 percent in 2016, but might have contracted last year.

Kim seems to have decided that his best hope for boosting North Korea’s economy, without reversing progress on its nuclear program, is to weaken the international coalition enforcing the sanctions.

His campaign begins with South Korea, where he is attempting to use ethnic nationalism to drive a wedge between the South and its US ally, and potentially even to convince it to abandon the alliance altogether.

In the longer term, Kim appears to hope that he can convince the international community that it can coexist with a nuclear North Korea, much as Pakistan did.

DIPLOMATIC REALISM

However, South Korea is unlikely to be fooled so easily. Since his inauguration in May last year, President Moon Jae-in has known that he needed to find a way to mitigate the existential threat of nuclear war. So, he decided to treat the Winter Olympics as an opportunity not only to defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula, but also to spur momentum for dialogue on denuclearization.

While the possibility that South Koreans might be drawn into North Korea’s honey trap cannot be ruled out, most South Koreans, including young people, have had their fill of the North’s provocations and are highly unlikely to be seduced by Kim’s charm offensive.

Moon himself made it clear last month that no improvement in the South’s relationship with North Korea would be possible without denuclearization. Indeed, his efforts to open a dialogue with the North seem to be driven by cool diplomatic realism, not naive idealism.

As for the US, its take on the intra-Korea dialogue reflects a mixture of skepticism and expectation. Trump has expressed support for the effort, but those in the US remain concerned about any potential strain on their nation’s alliance with South Korea.

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