Kim stepped dramatically onto the world stage when he met South Korean president Moon Jae‐in. Next up, or at least planned, is Kim’s summit with President Donald Trump, at a location and time yet to be decided. Kim previously traveled to Beijing to chat with President Xi Jinping. There is talk that he also might meet with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Kim has become a jet‐setter by North Korean standards.
What to make of the new Kim? There’s the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The good was Kim’s performance as a seemingly normal statesman. Like his father (remember Team America?) and grandfather, Kim was easy to caricature. But this time Kim appeared as someone with whom the West could do business. Of course, given his human‐rights record, we would prefer not to do so. However, Kim, like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, cannot be wished away.
Moreover, a ruler who leavens his quest for control with a mix of cynicism and pragmatism might sometimes do right, even if for the wrong reason. Kim appears to understand the benefits of engagement with the world. Indeed, he agreed with Moon on all the right objectives: Denuclearizing the peninsula, ending hostility, engaging in peace negotiations, and doing much more.
Obviously, such verbiage, without action, is of little value. However, agreeing with a long list of the West’s goals is a start. Further, Kim sounded dramatically different from his predecessors when he asked: “If we maintain frequent meetings and build trust with the United States and receive promise for an end to the war and a non‐aggression treaty, then why would we need to live in difficulty by keeping our nuclear weapons?”
Still, the bad also is real. The Kim–Moon summit was essentially a repeat. Kim’s father, Kim Jong‐il, met regularly with China’s rulers, saw Putin in Moscow, and held summits with two South Korean presidents. Kim père also met with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The inter‐Korean lovefests generated professions of affection and cooperation — as well as hand‐holding and even singing. Out of these meetings grew the “Sunshine Policy,” highlighted by aid, investment, and high hopes.
Which all ended up for naught. Confrontation and brinkmanship replaced disarmament and reform. Nuclear and missile testing accelerated. Over the past year, people even talked seriously of the potential for nuclear war. The latest summit had a more modern feel, but one session is not enough.
In fact, that is Kim’s message with his call for “frequent meetings” and building “trust with the United States.” These objectives require time. Time before the DPRK would give up its nukes.
Moreover, so far nothing has changed in North Korea. Remember that although Mikhail Gorbachev received support in his bid to be general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party as someone possessing “iron teeth,” in the words of foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, Gorbachev soon proved to have a human soul. Dramatic internal change, relaxing Moscow’s inhumane rule over its own people, was the most important signal that something really had changed in the U.S.S.R.
Kim has yet to do the same. He was ruthless — and effective — in securing his own power. By one estimate, he has ordered the execution of some 340 people. His government also appears to have arranged the assassination of his half‐brother, with whom the Chinese might have hoped to replace Kim.
The Kim‐dynasty cult remains in full effect. Kim’s government cracked down on traffic across the Yalu River with China. About the only softening in the North in recent years is the reported rise in bribery, which sometimes spares offenders from further punishment. So far there is no sign of a North Korean variant of glasnost and perestroika.
Yet any serious opening to the West would greatly weaken existing controls. Expanded influences from South Korea would be especially threatening. Even now, the regime is particularly sensitive to the impact of South Korean entertainment, easily spread via flash drives. As a shrimp among whales, as Korea is commonly called, the North could find its “social system,” in DPRK‐speak, under siege.