I am surprised, but I am also happy. The past year has been unquestionably tense for those interested in Asian Affairs. For the first time in decades there was a seemingly serious, uncontrollable and ugly risk of a catastrophic land war on the Korean Peninsula. As North Korea pursued a defiant barrage of missile and nuclear testing, combined with the bellicose, unpredictable and seemingly erratic threats of Donald Trump, it was a match made in hell. Few people were optimistic of the outcomes. Whilst my gut instinct thought such a war would ultimately not happen, the experience of it was tense, emotional and unsettling. Yet, in a matter of days, the events of last year seem already a million miles away. The unprecedented “U-turn” by Kim Jong-un on being willing to consider denuclearisation has been dubbed a “miracle” by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Then, before we could even fully digest that, Trump himself says he will be off to Pyongyang to meet Kim. Well… what can I say?
It is easy to get carried away with such news, not least because formal talks have not even begun yet, not to mention the question of what will actually be “placed” on the table itself, where things are likely to get a bit sticky. Still, that is no reason to scorn optimism, as all parties, be it America, North Korea, China, South Korea and Japan, had everything to lose by going down the other route. But what are the most important things to take from this? First of all, Kim Jong-un has limits. It is easy to portray to him as an unstable, insane and unreasonable mad dictator, but this is a stereotype, a Western discourse which floats on cultural and historical cliques which does not reflect the highly subjective reality of politics. Kim certainly may do things the rest of the world does not like or meets with condemnation, but that doesn’t he is a fundamentally irrational actor who does not perceive the environment around him accurately. He has limits, he has boundaries. Whether you think his urge to negotiate is sincere or insincere, he ultimately came to the recognition that if he continued on his current path, it was unlikely to end well for him. Be it via the increasing sanctions on his country, or worse, the unpredictable threats of the man in the White House himself, he knew something had to give. Whether that be actual denuclearisation itself or a simple stabilization of tensions and a turn towards a more “long game” remains to be seen, but the point stands regardless.
Secondly, the rapid turn of events suggests that in contrast to his predecessors, Kim’s political needs are different. It is easy to again simplify North Korea’s politics into a society that is held together by delusion, “brainwashing” and god-like worship of its leaders, but that is again a western cultural connotation which underestimates the complexity of how politics works. In the present day, North Korea is evolving in ways that are not well realized or understood. Despite being a closed society, awareness and influence of the outside world is increasing. North Koreans do not live in “ignorance”, “wanting to be freed” as some patronizingly assume, but are very much conscious of their country’s situation and difference to the outside world. Through a changing economic system and grassroots marketisation, the country’s society is evolving. Young North Koreans in Pyongyang aspire to make money through entrepreneurship, they seek to have consumer goods such as mobile phones, computers and so on. When viewed in this light, Kim Jong-un’s rule depends more upon economic achievements than his father did. Despite the negative affects of nuclear development, this has been a continual theme of his leadership. He has made achieving growth a goal and has concurrently, permitted small reforms in the company. When we consider North Korea’s economy grew by 4% last year, this is not absurd as it seems. North Korea likes to struggle, it likes to resist, it was always willing to take some pain from sanctions, but there are limits. Kim couldn’t row back on that goal. He is young, he has to plan for a long term tenure and people in his country want a better life.
Nevertheless, challenges lie ahead. North Korea’s nuclear program has always served the purpose of being useful leverage in negotiation to get what it wants on its own terms. This overwhelmingly works to Kim’s advantage seen as he has all but completed the country’s capabilities in that regard. This means that if he is to give it up, there will be a catch, presumably a big one too. After the meeting with South Korean officials earlier in the week, they stated North Korea would be willing to give it up if “Security assurances” were given to the country. What does this mean? It’s vague and ambiguous. This could mean the withdrawal of American forces from South Korea completely, something which is likely to go down as a non-starter in Washington. Despite the fact that Trump has seemingly jumped at negotiations with an open mind, he is going to face considerable pressure from hardliners in Washington who will strive for him to give as little concessions as possible. The contradictions in this are visible when we see how the Republican Party has seethed at deals struck by Obama with Iran and Cuba. Trump himself even tried to even strike them down. So that in itself should be sobering.
So optimism or pessimism? If Trump really is the deal-maker he claims himself to be, then let’s hope he can drive a good bargain with Kim Jong-un which ultimately respects the interests of both America and North Korea. If he can do that, then I will have no choice to but to give him credit where credit is due. I believed his approach could never work and I criticized him for inflaming the situation. Of course, we have no tangible results to say it has “worked” yet, but, one thing is for sure is that Trump’s unpredictability and unwillingness to stick to any “conventional” rules has contributed, both directly and indirectly. His seemingly unguessable hints of conflict pushed South Korea to begin engaging the North and then before we know it, we’ve set out on the long road to peace.
Yet it doesn’t end there. His willingness to dive into visiting North Korea itself and meeting Kim Jong-un is huge, sweeping aside boundaries that were simply unimaginable to other American Presidents. That in itself is likely to yield something worthwhile. Whilst I still can never support someone who threatens “fire and fury” against another country in the United Nations General Assembly, or whilst I can never support someone who has been so vulgar in his rhetoric and general approach to everything, it is nevertheless the very fact that Trump is chaotic, that he cares so little for established precedents and acts like a raging bull in a China shop, is what ultimately makes him effective at times. Let’s be brutally honest, if Hilary were president, we wouldn’t be where we are now. When you see it in this light, you realize why many Americans supported him, even if what he stands for is morally repellent and based more times than not, on nonsense. Has the difference been made here? As he likes to say, “let’s wait and see“.