The list of things that we thought we would never see continues to grow. A little less than 24 hours ago, the two leaders of the Korean peninsula met, spoke, and planted a tree together. This tree was to symbolize peace and prosperity between the two nations, but it symbolizes far more than that. This show of good faith by Kim Jong-Un will surely alter the course of history in ways that we cannot yet fully measure.
There are many people who think that this is nothing more than showmanship on the part of Kim Jong-Un.
Many around the world are hopeful that the pendulum will finally swing toward lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. But this is naïveté. The North Korean leader we saw yesterday is no different from the leadership we saw in 2000, 2008 — or even just late last year. And the way things are developing between Moon and Kim, it appears Kim’s hand is getting stronger while Moon and his administration continue to fall prey to Pyongyang’s false promises.
Whatever his (Kim Jong-Un) motives, the 34-year-old dictator has proved to be a remarkably adroit player on the world stage. “If anyone gets credit, it’s Kim Jong-Un” said Daniel R Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs who is now at the Asia Society. “It’s his show.”
While some may feel heartened by all this, and by the scenes of camaraderie between Kim and Moon, just as many people are deeply skeptical of the Kim regime’s motives. North Korea has a long track record of gaining concessions by agreeing to stop its nuclear activities, only to start them up again later.
While North Korea does have a history of paying lip service to peace, this appears to be something far different from what we have seen before. Kim Jong-Un is not displaying strong opposition to the negotiations that are being held. One would expect that, if he were simply lying, he could do so without the hugely symbolic gesture of planting a tree with South Korea’s leader.
The simple act of ceremonially planting a tree has created a far different scenario than what has happened in the past. This basic gesture of cooperation and good will, has set the stage for more genuine and agreeable discussions on all sides. Many are not going to see it this way, but the connection that was created between the two leaders in that ceremony will not be forgotten by either of them, which will influence how they react when it’s time to discuss what the future will be.
Consider, from Kim’s perspective, what could be gained should he decide to agree to denuclearization. The differences between North Korea and the rest of the world are more apparent now than they have ever been. It’s not difficult to imagine that a dictator would feel unimportant, or weak, if he believes his power is equal to that of a single multi-millionaire anywhere else in the world. That realization is getting harder and harder to ignore, as the world leaves North Korea further and further behind.
Un will attain more perceived power, and respect, by allowing North Korea to be stripped of its potential nuclear arsenal, thus lowering economic sanctions, and increasing the country’s wealth. The meeting yesterday was the first step in what is going to be an incredible transformation of North Korea into something resembling a modern country.
Now we move on to the meeting that will be held with the United States. Time will tell what happens when Kim meets with President Trump, though, Trump now has two unfair advantages; his reputation for being the best negotiator, and Kim Jong-Un’s newly gained respect by planting a tree. Trump will enter the negotiations with Kim having already decided that Trump will probably get what he wants, and Kim will enter with a new-found reputation for goodwill to defend.
Nobody likes to be the bad guy, especially when you demand that your entire country worship you as a god, but the position that Kim has put himself in will not allow him to make a move outside of peace, without extreme damage to his self-image. Kim Jong-Un, as with all dictators, is extremely conscious of his self-image. He will not willingly allow himself to be stripped of perceived power or respect. Given that he has backed off of a direct show of force, his only chance to maintain power and respect in the global community is to negotiate well in the coming weeks.
I believe that he will continue this trend, and relinquish his military aspirations, in favor of increased recognition and respect among the world’s leaders; something that he lost when Trump was elected. Prior to this, the world “respected” him by constantly worrying that he would blow whole countries into smithereens. Trump did the exact opposite of everyone else, and more or less begged Kim to follow through. Trump called Kim’s bluff, and Kim folded. The only way for Kim to regain the respect that he had for his entire life–respect that he craves–is for him to agree to the terms that are laid out for him.
This was a psychological problem from the start. Very few people saw it for what it was, and yet, the “risky” strategy of President Trump is beginning to bear fruit. The planting of a tree is just the beginning, a beginning that will shape a very different future for us.