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What is behind Kim's play?

U.S. President Donald Trump has at last confirmed that the first-ever summit between North Korea and the United States is a go. His decision follows a diplomatic whirlwind.

Given that both parties deployed maximum assets, all indications are that they wanted this to happen. At least four separate channels have been employed.

In Singapore, working level officials examined venues, logistics and security. In the DMZ, mid-level officials thrashed out issues, seeking common ground. In Pyongyang and Washington, ministerial-level officials shuttled back and forth, forging relationships. At the apex, the leaders addressed each other a formerly as "dotard" and "little rocket man," latterly via elaborate letters.

If the players want it to happen a why so?

Trump appears to be thinking legacy. He is probably also thinking electoral politics. A big, positive-optics foreign policy win (eg a Korean War peace treaty) suits both agendas. And he has been fascinated by North Korea since long before he started his presidential campaign.

Kim is more opaque. What are his calculations?

Some believe he was under pressure; that sanctions were biting, and the odds against him so formidable, that he had to change tack. Others think that with his nuclear deterrent complete and his strategic missile program almost complete, he is willing to start using this "treasured sword" to grant him a seat at the highest table.

The two are not, of course, mutually exclusive.

He has played a poor hand with great skill. One year ago, he led the most heavily sanctioned regime on earth, and faced a possible U.S. attack. He had never met a major world leader. Now, he has charmed South Korea, held two summits with the world's second most powerful man, and is about to meet its most powerful man.

Kim has gone further with diplomatic brinksmanship than either of his predecessors. Is he willing to make concessions? Could he seek real change?

Experts a almost exclusively a say no. They reckon he will renege. That he is playing for time until the mercurial Trump departs. That his moves are tactical ploys to woo China and Russia, while driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington.

Perhaps. But experts get the Koreas wrong time and again. In the 1950s, none expected South Korea to become an economic powerhouse; in the 1960s, experts advised nation-builder Park Chung-hee to scale back his plans; he was too ambitious, they warned.

In the 1990s, through the fall European communism, the death of Kim Il-sung and hideous famines, experts predicted a North Korean collapse. Many said (some still do) that North Korea cannot let its population believe that South Korea is richer, nor expose the populace to external information. In fact, that is now acknowledged in North Korea and outside information, in the form of smuggled media a notably South Korean pop culture a has surged in. Yet the regime remains.

Can North Korea change? Conventional wisdom is "no." It is too brittle, too threatened by the South. But it has survived war, famine, poverty, three successions and the dissolution of its socialist distribution system and the rise of marketization nationwide.

Authoritarian regimes do change. Pinochet's Chile, Chun's South Korea and Franco's Spain eventually democratized without calamity. Totalitarian China and Vietnam both switched their economic models yet retained party control.

The closest political model to North Korea a Imperial Japan, with its ultra-nationalist policies, militarized society and God-emperor a successfully shifted from a militarized imperium to peaceful constitutional monarchy in 1945. (Albeit World War II prompted the transition).

At this stage, few believe that substantive denucleariztion, let alone almost systemic change, is likely in North Korea.

But if Kim begins engaging the wider world, could the process be halted? Or would it, like marketization, take on an unstoppable life of its own?

Could Kim be gambling his one and only card a strategic weapons a to kick-start a process that will force change on an inherited, ossified system he cannot reform internally? If so, that would explain his regime survival a or perhaps personal amnesty demands.

Probably not. But the current situation is unprecedented. As new possibilities arise, new leverage is created. Such possibilities and levers should be considered rather than being dismissed out of hand.
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Publication:The Korea Times News (Seoul, Korea)
Geographic Code:9SOUT
Date:Jun 4, 2018
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