Opinion: Charm from North Korea leaves the U.S. in a bind

Score one for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

The leader that Donald Trump likes to deride as Little Rocket Man has cleverly put his U.S. adversary in a bind. He has done so by simply having his sister invite South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang for talks.

Given that Moon won his presidency on a promise to foster dialogue between North and South, it will be near impossible for him to say no.

But the U.S. has adamantly opposed such talks – unless Kim agrees to abandon his nuclear weapons program.

This week, Washington backpedaled furiously. Vice-President Mike Pence told the Washington Post the U.S. is quite happy to talk to North Korea without preconditions, but that it won’t ease economic sanctions against the Kim regime.

“The maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify,” he told the Post after attending the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. “But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”

His comments signalled a belated recognition by the U.S. that Kim’s so-called charm offensive has been more effective than Washington expected.

When the North’s dictator offered to send a delegation to the Winter Games in South Korea, many analysts dismissed his action as an obvious propaganda ploy.

South Koreans, it was said, would see it for what it was – an attempt to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. What’s more, polls showed that younger Southerners have less interest in a united Korea than their parents. Kim’s efforts to appeal to a common Korean nationalism, it was thought, were doomed to failure.

But the naysayers were proven wrong. South Koreans lauded the North’s athletes and its all-female cheerleading squad. When the unified Korean team marched past during opening ceremonies, those in the audience stood to applaud. Pence, there to represent the U.S., did not do so. He said he was acting on principle. He seemed merely churlish.

But Kim’s great coup was his decision to send his sister Kim Yo Jong to the Games. In doing so, he took advantage of the media’s fascination with celebrity.

Kim Yo Jong is the best type of celebrity. She is mysterious. Little concrete is known about her. While it is generally agreed she’s in her 30s, even her exact age is in dispute.

Technically, she is an alternate member of the politburo of the ruling Korea Workers’ Party. But her real celebrity comes from the fact that she is a member of what is, in effect, the North’s royal family.

In that sense, she is North Korea’s Meghan Markle. And like Markle, she won points by simply being.

During her three days in the South, every physical detail of her was analyzed in the media – from the amount of makeup she used (not much) to her clothing (modest) to her demeanour (usually described as equally modest).

In reality, she is a senior figure in a brutal regime – trusted enough by her brother that she was chosen to pass on his summit invitation to Moon. But as a celebrity, she effectively presented herself as shy, self-effacing and –above all – human.

Kim Jong Un has accomplished five things from all of this.

First, he has reopened the idea of substantive talks between North and South Korea. If they do go ahead, who knows where they lead?

Second, by doing so, he has exploited the real divisions in strategy that exist between South Korea on one side and Japan and the U.S. on the other.

Third, he has made it politically more difficult for the U.S. to launch even a limited military strike against the North. It’s hard to dismiss Kim as a dangerous madman when he is behaving so reasonably.

Fourth, he has reminded the South that Northerners are not all monsters and that people on both sides of the border share a common, fierce nationalism.

Fifth, he has done all of this without even suggesting that he might give up nuclear weapons.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs columnist.

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