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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

How Kim Jong-un is following the playbook of his father 

It has been argued that US threats have incentivised North Korean cooperation, but in reality the latter is getting exactly what it wants, writes Hussein Ibish

In this June 2000 archive image, then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, left, and then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung shake hands in Pyongyang. Major summits hold no guarantee of further progress. In some cases, the summit is as good as it getsr.  AP
In this June 2000 archive image, then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, left, and then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung shake hands in Pyongyang. Major summits hold no guarantee of further progress. In some cases, the summit is as good as it getsr. AP

Let's face it, Donald Trump's new reality TV show, Presidential Apprentice, is compelling viewing. The second season, now under way, has introduced an unexpected plot twist: Mr Trump will meet the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un next month. Cue collective gasps.

It would be ridiculous if millions of lives weren't at stake. But this opening has actually been telegraphed for several months, and anyone who's very surprised hasn't been paying attention.

After the American and North Korean leaders traded bloodcurdling threats and preposterous personal insults throughout 2017, a thaw between Pyongyang and Seoul developed early in 2018. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said: “I am giving a lot of credit to President Trump,” and that the United States would be willing to begin talks with North Korea "at the appropriate time, under the right circumstances".

Around the same time, Mr Trump was quoted by The Wall Street Journal as saying, "I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un.” The White House denied this, insisting Mr Trump had said they "would" have a good relationship if he wanted one, but the recordings seemed to vindicate the journalists.

South Korean overtures to North Korea continued during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, which featured a great deal of collaboration and communication including shared teams and unprecedented interactions, and a much-publicised visit to the South by Mr Kim's powerful and sinister sister.

Mr Trump's Vice President, Mike Pence, snubbed the North Koreans, but no one cared.

In subsequent meetings following this remarkable rapprochement, South Korea first indicated North Korea's preparedness to enter into talks with the United States, and then its willingness to consider total nuclear disarmament.

At that point, a presidential summit was no longer unthinkable. But this is one of the most complex diplomatic equations imaginable.

Both leaders can plausibly claim victory.

Mr Trump will undoubtedly say that his bellicose rhetoric and, more plausibly, greatly intensified international sanctions, as well as major pressure on Pyongyang by China which he encouraged, has brought North Korea to the table at last after years of obstinacy.

Mr Kim, on the other hand, is almost certainly doing a victory lap. He has insisted that North Korea would become an intercontinental nuclear power capable of threatening all parts of the United States, and join the international nuclear club as a de facto equal member, to be treated as such. Given recent missile tests, it would seem that North Korea has got close enough to intercontinental missile capability that, prudently, one can only assume they have it. The same applies to an apparent successful hydrogen bomb test by Pyongyang a few months ago. Can they fit the two together now and successfully deliver hydrogen bomb against Los Angeles or even New York City? No one knows, but any sensible person has to proceed on the assumption they either already can, or soon enough will.

Mr Kim has long maintained that his nuclear programme is mainly designed to relieve all kinds of external pressure on the regime, to ensure it is treated with maximal respect internationally and therefore allow it to focus on economic development.

So, while it may be true that Mr Trump's bellicosity and threats of "fire and fury" have incentivised North Korean cooperation, in fact Mr Kim is getting exactly what he wants. He's meeting the American president, with whom he is technically still at war, apparently without any other precondition besides a generalised pledge not to conduct any major missile or nuclear tests during the period of negotiations.

If Mr Kim was hoping his nuclear programme would ensure North Korea is treated as an equal of sorts by Washington, apparently that's happening essentially as planned. He may be concerned about the possibility of a sudden and unprovoked American attack. But, judging by his pronouncements, this meeting is exactly what he would want precisely on schedule.

Mr Kim seems to be following the playbook of his father and grandfather: ratchet up tensions to the highest degree, and then offer some kind of enticing compromise. The next phase traditionally is to then take as much advantage of the period of calm as possible before resuming provocative and bellicose behaviour. Rinse and repeat as needed.

Mr Trump says he will only accept full North Korean denuclearisation. That seems extremely unlikely; indeed, it's hard to imagine what either side can offer that resolves this fundamental dispute.

Mr Trump may claim that he has accomplished more progress with North Korea than any of his immediate predecessors and at very little cost. We'll see if that's true. And we’ll also see if the same applies to his brinksmanship regarding the international nuclear deal with Iran and if he can secure new supplementary agreements restricting Tehran's missile development and testing or its regional destabilisation.

The whole thing may, of course, prove to be just another episode of a particularly silly and melodramatic TV show. As things stand, Mr Kim is definitely pocketing a huge achievement while Mr Trump may or may not be making progress, to be determined. Tune in next week, unless you're incinerated.