While some may see Kim Jong-un as ill equipped to broker deals on the world stage, nothing could be further from the truth. By Hamish McDonald.

Diplomacy à la Kim Jong-un

There may still be some who think that when and if Donald Trump ever meets Kim Jong-un, there will be two impulsive and ill-informed people in the room.

Nothing could be further from the truth, say North Korea experts. Despite being half Trump’s age, Kim will be master of the subject under discussion. Trump, according to reports out of Washington, has so far refused the kind of detailed briefings given to Bill Clinton and George Bush during two previous crises over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

“Kim will be the adult in the room, no question,” says Adrian Buzo, Macquarie University specialist, author of a standard text on North Korea’s regime, The Guerilla Dynasty, and once a diplomat in Australia’s short-lived Whitlam-era embassy in Pyongyang. “He will know what he is dealing with when he goes into the room, and he’ll know what to expect.”

“No one in North Korea is better informed about the outside world, including politics in Washington, than Kim Jong-un,” adds Shim Jae Hoon, a veteran journalist in Seoul. “He has BBC, CNN, NHK and other international TV channels installed in his office, and an Associated Press ticker to check international news around the clock. That allows him to play South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and maybe Trump.”

Until this year, Kim was a remote figure to the outside world, seen on podiums reviewing military parades or cheering missile launches and bomb tests with white-coated scientists. Suddenly at New Year, he switched to affable, pausing weapons tests, sending his sister Kim Yo-jong with a team to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, offering to meet Trump, and crossing the demilitarised zone to meet Moon.

The summit meeting between Trump and Kim was set for Singapore on June 12, only to see Trump pull the pin on Thursday (US time). Trump had earlier accepted Kim’s invitation against the advice of his senior foreign policy staff and then sacked most of them.

Kim, by contrast, knows what he wants. A meeting with a sitting US president would be a gain in recognition. Buzo thinks the next aim is consolidating North Korea’s advances made since he succeeded his late father, Kim Jong-il, in late 2011. “They got nuclear capability,” Buzo said. “The trick now is to keep it.” His two recent meetings with China’s Xi Jinping, the first since taking power, show Kim thinks he is up to it.

While Trump and his latest national security adviser, John Bolton, talk of an all-or-nothing surrender of capability, Kim has other ideas. “Kim’s main aim is to avoid an immediate, total denuclearisation accord with a salami-slicing tactic of ‘phased, synchronous’ denuclearisation, with each stage of removal of WMD to be compensated with an aid package,” said Shim Jae Hoon. “This delaying tactic is also reinforced with a demand for ‘simultaneous removal’ of US weapons of mass destruction in South Korea (actually non-existent since 1981) and even an inspection of US weapons facilities in Okinawa and the US mainland.”

That a young man running an isolated, rogue regime could attempt such a strategic game, at the immediate cost of a trade embargo joined by normal allies China and Russia, shows the boldness of the playbook inherited from his father.

Kim Jong-il inherited the leadership from his father and regime founder, the thuggish Kim Il-sung, who was installed by the Soviet Red Army in 1945 and propped up by Beijing and Moscow following the devastating Korean War he launched. The second Kim steered the regime through the withdrawal of Soviet aid and the mid-1990s famine that killed up to two million people.

A cynic who lived in comfort, importing French wine and a Japanese sushi chef, watching foreign movies and making some himself with kidnapped stars from South Korea, Kim Jong-il mastered the art of brinkmanship, racing forward with nuclear experiments, then entering phases of diplomacy to dissipate the reaction.

Kim Jong-un was born on January 8 in 1982, or 1983, or 1984 − the year is still not clear – from Kim Jong-il’s second and favourite consort, a Korean entertainer born in Japan. Jong-un quickly gained a reputation as a hard character, dressing in military uniform, not apparently softened by school years at an English-language private school in Switzerland (disguised as a child of an embassy official) before returning to study physics and military affairs in Pyongyang.

When Kim Jong-il suffered a severe stroke, succession planning went into overdrive. Older brother Kim Jong-chul was discarded as too arty and “feminine” – he’s been spotted at Eric Clapton concerts in Singapore and London – and a female leader unthinkable. Older half-brother Kim Jong-nam was also too soft, and more importantly, close to the Chinese.

“It was against Confucian tradition to appoint the younger son,” says the Australian National University’s Leonid Petrov, who trained as a Korea specialist in the former Soviet Union and had close contact with the North Koreans. “But according to the communist dictatorship system it’s better because the younger person can stay in power longer.”

After three years of transition Kim Jong-un was blooded by the sinking of a South Korean warship without warning, and the bombardment of a South Korean island, before his father succumbed. Kim Jong-un missed a peace signal from Barack Obama in early 2012 and tested a missile, but since then has played a deft game. “In seven years he hasn’t made a misstep,” Buzo said. “It would be very hard to match up to his father, but of course he’s streets ahead of his grandfather.”

Kim Jong-un announced a new “byongjin”, or parallel development policy, putting economic expansion alongside the military priority of his father’s “songun” or army-first policy. In practice it hasn’t added up to much, beyond the market-based activity at local level started under Kim Jong-il. What he has added is an element of fun, at least for the elite, through a ski resort and an aquatic centre, and an attempt to match K-pop by putting revolutionary songs to a current beat.

He entertains some foreign visitors on a motor-yacht at Wonju on the east coast, sometimes joining them on a jet-ski. At the summit with South Korea’s Moon he came across as relaxed and open, drinking and sharing jokes. He is married with at least one child, and unusually for North Korea appears at official events with his wife and sometimes his sister as well.

The other side of his personality appeared in ruthless purges of alternative power centres. Early on, his uncle by marriage, Jang Song-thaek, was hauled out of a meeting in front of TV cameras, taken away, and is assumed to have been executed. Just 15 months ago half-brother Kim Jong-nam died of VX nerve agent applied to his face at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Perhaps several hundred army officers, security officials and diplomats have disappeared too, with South Korean reports that some were put to savage dogs, anti-aircraft guns and flame-throwers. Yet possibly some might return to public view, suitably chastened, as happened under his father.

Placating the Americans, by initially giving up his intercontinental missiles in return for economic aid, seems a long shot though. So far it’s cut off much of Pyongyang’s sources of hard currency, from the sale of minerals to China and conventional arms to the Third World.

“It’s pragmatic, but it looks short-sighted,” said Petrov. “He’s good at tactics, how to make opponents panic and squeeze concessions out of them, but I don’t think there is great long-term strategic vision. He was simply lucky that Moon was in office [rather than his hardline conservative predecessors].”

Offering to make peace is the strongest card Kim Jong-un can play, Petrov said, “but how sincere is he?” The entire rationale of the regime is the threat of attack. Without it, keeping an army of one million mobilised, the rest of North Korea’s 24 million under wartime conditions, and maintaining the myth that South Koreans yearn for reunification in the Democratic People’s Republic could not be maintained.

Recent pushback against Bolton suggests Kim was also looking for excuses not to go to Singapore.

The meeting would be doomed anyway, said Petrov before Thursday’s cancellation. “Even if peace is promised, Kim Jong-un must have a nuclear device somewhere hidden in the mountains. When it’s needed, he can say: ‘You cheated, and I cheated too. Too bad.’ It’s impossible to say North Korea is completely nuclear free or the know-how not preserved. There must be a long trust-building process, which the South Koreans understand. It’s impossible to change North Korea overnight.”

But North Korea is slowly changing, partly because tens of thousands of workers were sent abroad in recent years to earn hard currency remittances. “Maybe he understands the regime is not eternal,” Petrov said. “Maybe he’s just buying time: for himself, his family, the elite.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 26, 2018 as "Diplomacy à la Kim".

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