Kim Jong Un: The greatest showman

Kim Jong Un: The greatest showman
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As the Winter Olympics open in South Korea, everyone will be watching North Korea — its legions of cheerleaders, singers, musicians, dancers, and even the country’s few athletes, all of whom have gained entry onto the world’s biggest stage through the back door of the International Olympic Committee, a body not known as an exemplar of integrity and fair play. Why?

Because the exotic Pyongyang-blessed, faceless Pyeongchang pageantry known as the 2018 Winter Olympiad has morphed into political theater whose success hangs on the degree of glitz concocted and gullibility of the audience assembled. Simply, it is a tantalizing freak show masquerading as the “Peace Olympics.”

With a full year-long bluster-barrage and ballistic missile blasts under his belt, North Korean ringmaster Kim Jong Un made a dramatic outreach on New Year’s Day, hypnotizing much of the world with amnesia-borne expectations of peace. This week, the impresario extraordinaire topped his cast of actors by designating Kim Yong Nam, his 90-year-old figurehead head of state, as leader of the North’s delegation. In making his first visit to South Korea, Kim Yong Nam will meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-In and shake hands with several foreign dignitaries, intensifying the ardent desideratum of all peace-loving people around the world.


Forgotten in this soap opera will be the plain fact that there has been de facto peace — no war — in the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953, whereas in the 60-year period leading up to the outbreak of the war in 1950, the region was engulfed by four major international wars.

Now that the production stage is finally over, it’s time to raise the curtain on the North Korean Games.

Kim Jong Un’s first act opens with a major “Missiles ‘R’ Us” military parade on Feb. 8, the newly-restored Military Founding Day and also eve of the opening ceremony of the Olympics. By striking a menacing martial pose, Kim will show the world who’s in charge. Gone are the single-act plays of yesteryears, when his father, Kim Jong Il, cravenly tried to spoil South Korea's coming-out party, the hosting of the 1988 Summer Olympiad, by blowing up a civilian aircraft on Nov. 29, 1987, killing all 115 persons on board. Or, starting a deadly naval skirmish on June 29, 2002, just hours before the South Korean national soccer team, on home turf, was to play for an unprecedented third- or fourth-place finish in the World Cup. Now, armed with a nuclear stick that may reach the U.S. mainland and a palliative carrot that can melt South Korean hearts, North Korea’s act has reached full flower.

The elder Kim was a bit clumsy in his propaganda ploys as well as terrorist schemes. For example, on Feb. 26, 2008, North Korea invited the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to play in Pyongyang, the day after the inauguration of the new South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, thus stealing the spotlight from Seoul. While the international media and the unsuspecting musicians waxed poetic on the virtues of musical diplomacy, Pyongyang continued to march to its own nuclear tune. The returns on this campaign proved marginal, when the South shut down just months later a major cash cow for Kim Jong Il, the Mount Kumgang tourism project, after a South Korean tourist was killed. Moreover, the bomb planted on the South Korean civilian aircraft in 1987 not only failed to spoil the 1988 Olympics but also solidified Pyongyang’s pariah status as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Kim Jong Un, buttressed by nukes and ballistic missiles, is a different kind of showman. In a brief few weeks, he has undergone a total makeover — from murderous mafioso and “little rocket man” of 2017 to the peaceful engager of the deterrer of today. In the process of this metamorphosis, he has helped much of the world forget the painful memories of state-sponsored assassination, triple inter-continental ballistic missile gift package, and a landmark nuclear test, all within the past year.

Enter the American Grinch, daring to raise the North’s human rights violations. Lest the United States fret about Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity (which, according to a U.N.-commissioned report, “do not have any parallel in the contemporary world”), or the North’s upcoming military gala, or discourteously call its sports diplomacy a charade, Kim Jong Un is reassuring his audience by closing out the festive day on Feb. 8 with a musical act near the site of the Games — a night at the theater with his elite sing-song troupe.

Thus, even before the world watches athletes from both Koreas marching together in the opening ceremony under the reincarnated blue-and-white-globular-peninsular flag, or the synchronized smiles of Kim's “army of beauties” in action, or the joint North-South women’s hockey team duel it out with Japan, Kim Jong Un stands to be recognized as the world’s greatest showman.

But, unlike the sugary ersatz of the circus, North Korea’s concoction is coated with deadly poison in the mold of weapons of mass destruction. There are massive real-life consequences in falling for such an act. In boondoggling the gullible, Pyongyang will reap concessions from the richer, democratic and very much risk-averse South Korea. In fooling the world at large, Kim is virtually guaranteed to walk off scot-free from his next big provocation, even if it comes right in the middle of the Games. The crescendo of “peace” will spill over even into the post-Olympics period, giving Kim time and political cover under which to perfect his own nuclear posture review.

Maestro Kim’s next provocation will paradoxically propel Seoul all the more vigorously to placate Pyongyang. Appeasement is fine if it works. But folding in the face of Kim’s carrot-and-stick strategy and rewarding him with more blandishments only increases the probability of the following: North Korea coming to be accepted as a nuclear state, the sole de facto and, in time, the sole de jure sovereign state in the Korean peninsula and the advent of a happier world, in which the world learns to stop fretting about the bomb and Kim stops worrying about the specter of being absorbed by the richer South. For it is precisely this brighter future Pyongyang seeks when it speaks, in the true Olympic spirit, of "participating" in the Games and "improving" inter-Korean relations.

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.