As that ageless French idiom states, the more things change, the more they remain the same. That saying seems to apply to the current situation with North Korea, and I would advise that we temper our enthusiasm over President Trump’s acceptance of Kim Jong Un’s invitation to meet.
There are always nuances in East Asian diplomacy and especially when dealing with the portly dictator. In the ongoing effort to establish conditions for a dialogue, Kim Jong Un has maintained control over negotiations because North Korea proposed having talks via South Korea. In athletic parlance, the ball is still in Kim Jong Un’s court.
In fact, as North Korea makes a reported overture for negotiations, a moment away from the athletic action at the recent Winter Olympics in South Korea offers a snapshot, literally and figuratively, into the complexities for diplomatic relations with North Korea.
In viewing the opening ceremonies, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un, shared a common area in the stands.
Moon lifted his hand to gesture ‘hi’ to Kim Yo Jong, and it became an instance full of imagery that went viral throughout the Korean Peninsula. In that moment, leaders of three nations all gained points with their domestic bases.
In North Korea, the event went over well since “Little Kim” was higher than Moon, causing her to reach down to shake hands with Moon Jae-in. Consequently, she had the upper hand, again both literally and figuratively. That image resonated with North Korean civilians and party leaders alike.
For Moon Jae-in, who has taken a more reconciliatory tone toward North Korea than his predecessors, it was a smart move. In extending a hand, Moon’s gesture was viewed favorably by his political base by demonstrating that he is willing to reach out to North Korea.
Pence also came out a winner with his supporters by remaining stern and not engaging with any representative of North Korea, a regime that is despised by his boss, President Trump.
Alas, this moment, as with many things in Korean diplomacy, it can never be as simple as it seems, and there was nearly as much political action as athletic competition at the Winter Games.
While he flaunts the persona of a madman to intimidate others, including his own people and adversaries alike, Kim Jong Un is shrewd and calculating when it comes to international relations. He is not an easy negotiator, and Kim Jong Un may be playing South Korea and the Americans for his own gain, using the promise of negotiations to better position his regime and gain clout.
The tyrant rules by fear, and this weaponry gives him influence. Take away the weapons, and Kim Jong Un loses his biggest bargaining chip.
Consequently, I am skeptical of the sincerity of North Korea’s reported offer to abandon its nuclear program for the sake of negotiations, although I would welcome the development.
As a native of the region, I see it as a big deal whenever North Korea signals a willingness to talk. The idea of negotiation is better than any other option. I fear that any armed conflict will have dire consequences for residents of the peninsula.
However, I also realize that dealings with North Korea are often a slippery slope.
For example, it has since been learned that the United States and North Korea worked through back channels at the Olympics to arrange a meeting between Vice President Pence and North Korean leaders.
However, in a demonstration of typical North Korean one-upmanship, the rogue nation cancelled the meeting at the last minute. I liken this, in many ways, to being stood up at the last minute when going out on a date. With this move, the hermit kingdom gained the upper hand and assumed control of negotiations.
It was not surprising when Kim Jong Un’s regime then made things difficult, and I am concerned that same type of diplomatic game-playing is again occurring. There is a reason North Korea has cemented its reputation as a provocative, rogue nation that is disdained by others in the international community.
Although the Olympic flame has been extinguished, the action continues away from the playing venues in Korea.
Nusta Carranza Ko grew up in South Korea and has continued to focus much of her academic research on East Asia, including South Korean politics and human rights violations.
Nusta Carranza Ko is an assistant professor of political science at Ohio Northern University. She grew up in South Korea and has focused much of her academic research on East Asia, including South Korean politics and human rights violations. Her column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or Aim Media, owner of The Lima News.