Reading Kim Jong-un’s mind

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Reading Kim Jong-un’s mind

China’s new leadership under President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has just taken power. U.S. President Barack Obama was re-elected for his second four-year term. Russia’s strongman Vladimir Putin has returned to power with a strong focus on Asia. Japan’s old guard of conservative and right-winged politicians is expected to reclaim ruling power soon, and there is a 50-50 chance that South Korea’s conservative government could be replaced in the upcoming December presidential election.

Against the backdrop of these major geopolitical shifts, the U.S. and China are engaged in an unprecedented hegemonic fight in the Asia-Pacific region. Now, what is going on in the head of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who appears to have settled into his role at the helm after he officially took over when his father Kim Jong-il died in December 2011?

As Xi Jinping had long been anointed as heir to Hu Jintao, Kim must have done his homework about potential changes in ties with China. But new Chinese leadership, under pressure to address mounting complaints about the deepening gap between urban and rural areas as well as widespread corruption, could bluntly tell Pyongyang to keep out of trouble.

The young and inexperienced North Korean leader may also be a bit relieved to have the familiar, moderate Obama administration in Washington. The U.S. president, however, will most likely be preoccupied with the pressing economic issues in his country. So Kim may even be considering sending the Pyongyang Philharmonic Orchestra to the U.S. next spring as a dovish gesture to the re-elected president as part of efforts to tap any opportunities for renewed ties.

Putin, with his grand idea of transforming Vladivostok as a gateway to Asia, has proposed building a trans-continental gas pipeline across North Korea to supply Siberian natural gas to South Korea. Kim may be positively eyeing a business opportunity for North Korea by serving as a transit for the pipeline - collecting tolls, in other words - if he cannot reject Putin’s request.

As for Japan, no matter who steps into power, its stance and hostility toward Pyongyang will likely remain unchanged. Pyongyang attempted to improve ties with Tokyo amid renewed tensions between South Korea and Japan over territorial disputes, but that chance will disintegrate if hard-liner Shinzo Abe, current leader of the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party, becomes the next prime minister of Japan.

The outcome and ramification of South Korea’s presidential election is the most difficult to predict. Pyongyang secretly wishes for a change in the right-wing government, but it still remains unclear which of the two liberal contenders, Moon Jae-in or Ahn Cheol-soo, will be tapped as the final contender against ruling candidate Park Geun-hye.

Moon, a long-time confidante and chief of staff to late President Roh Moo-hyun, whom Kim’s father has met for summit talks, would be better to work with than the enigmatic Ahn, whose ideological stance still remains undecipherable. But, judging by how the talks over merging the two camps to field a single candidate have been going, Moon may no longer have an edge over Park even if he wins the candidacy. Ahn’s supporters would likely abandon the consolidation out of skepticism about fairness of the selection process.

Being a simple-minded guy, Kim will likely favor what suits him best. Regardless of who becomes the new president in the South, he or she won’t be as condescending and stiff-necked as President Lee Myung-bak, who maintained his so-called “Vision 3000 Policy” toward North Korea, under which South Korea would promise financial aid and investment to help boost the per capita income of North Koreans to $3,000 if the regime surrenders its nuclear ambition.

Kim lambasted the offer as a Trojan Horse. He can still remember the stern advice from his father. “These South Koreans are saying they can make us each worth $3,000 within a decade if we give up all our nuclear programs and come out in the open. They are oblivious that nuclear power is our key to viability. What we should do is deal with the U.S. alone. We can leverage our nuclear program only for a peace arrangement that ensures the sustainability of our republic.”

To North Korea, nuclear and missile programs are the only tools for getting its voice heard on the international stage and dealing with mounting pressure from the U.S. The aid-for-nuclear quid pro quo package deal was destined to fail. North Koreans believe they need to live first in order to live well. No North Korean policy would impress Kim unless it leads to diplomatic ties with the U.S. and a peace treaty that would eventually replace the cease-fire agreement. It is why a fundamental solution to the problems involving the Korean Peninsula hinges on the geopolitical framework of the Pacific powers, including the U.S. and China.

Kim may be disappointed at the mediocre platforms on North Korea from the three main South Korean presidential candidates, and in the meantime the North Korean military leaders who are unhappy about the regime’s primary focus on the economy may be relieved that there is no specific road map toward a lasting peace arrangement in campaign platforms.

The presidential-hopefuls all vow to meet the young North Korean leader, establish liaison offices in Seoul and Pyongyang, or realize economic confederation of the two Koreas. But they come across as vain to Kim. What he wants to hear is a specific blueprint for an eventual peace agreement through incremental steps in aid, resumption in tourism and business ventures, west coast co-development and practical inter-Korean cooperation.

Kim Ki-jung, a professor at Yonsei University who serves as one of the brain trust on foreign and security affairs for Moon’s campaign, was the first to mention the peace arrangement in a policy seminar. He said the two Koreas should first jointly declare an official end to the war and work toward a lasting peace treaty. He advised that talks on denuclearization and the peace treaty should go hand in hand.

Kim will like this idea as it will mean Seoul’s substantial retreat from its earlier position based on the principle of denuclearization before making any further progress in bilateral relations. But Moon has rashly floated a half-baked proposal to create a lower-level confederation between the two Koreas by skipping all the required work in the process.

The Korean Peninsula may be pushed back from the priority lists of Obama and Xi, whose attention would primarily be focused on home affairs for the next two to three years. For a breakthrough in the nuclear impasse and to broaden our economic spectrum to North Korea and Siberia, we must talk about peace at the same time. When Washington and Beijing are too preoccupied with their internal issues to turn their attention overseas, it will be our best chance to take the initiative in paving the way for denuclearized, cooperative and peaceful inter-Korean relations.

* The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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