Kim Jong Un’s weaponization of weirdness

Kim Jong Un’s weaponization of weirdness
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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is having a blast. Fresh off a posh getaway to Beijing last week with his wife, Ri Sol-Ju, during which they were treated to a lavish banquet featuring rare Chinese Maotai liquor at $200,000 (not a typo) a bottle, on Easter Sunday Kim had a night out at the theater with his wife and sister, Kim Yo Jong, to enjoy a rare concert in Pyongyang by South Korea’s top pop singers — including the red hot, super talented girl band, Red Velvet.

Kim graciously invited the Southerners for a group photo afterward and intoned that cultural diplomacy between the two sides should become routine — thus, coming across as a reasonable leader or, at the least, a nice man.

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Of the two acts of indulgence — strolling statesmanlike with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Beijing’s red carpet and watching fanlike a live performance of the rhythmic-and-bluesy hit single “Bad Boy” by Red Velvet (and meeting the singers  afterward) — the latter will prove far more transformative in casting Kim Jong Un as a regular, well-intentioned guy finally coming out of his angry isolation and as a responsible steward of his nukes and gulags. It’s a key step in cajoling the world into accepting his nuclear state as fait accompli.

 

Whereas a China visit by the antisocial North Korean leader, followed by reciprocal visits to Pyongyang by Chinese officials, were, like death and taxes, bound to happen (China is North Korea’s sole treaty ally, as is North Korea China’s), by personally endorsing K-pop in Pyongyang Kim seeks to reach new heights in his ambitious image makeover campaign. To publicly embrace the enemy’s most subversive soft power is to whitewash his menacing totalitarian self as a reform-minded, confident, well-meaning and — perish the thought — even “hip” young leader presiding over a not-so-abnormal nation.

Such is the dismally low bar the outside world has blindly set on how to assess the ultra-weird North Korean regime, even the most mundane acts like meeting with foreign leaders, visiting China, or going to a concert will be interpreted as signs of desire for denuclearization, reform and opening. For example, that Kim Jong Un had lived in Switzerland as a boy, favors mini skirt-clad female bands, enjoys being seen in public with his wife, and likes to frolic with former National Basketball Association star Dennis Rodman have all fueled mystifying prognostications that Kim is, respectively, a reformer, modern man, family man and secretly signaling Washington for talks.

When it comes to North Korea, the non-weird has meant a brave new world, no matter how short-lived.

Kim’s brainstorming with President Xi on common strategy on the eve of a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-In in April was virtually preordained. Kim’s daddy, Kim Jong Il, did just that, making a “surprise visit” to Beijing two weeks before his first-ever summit meeting with his South Korean counterpart in June 2000. Soon thereafter, Kim II courted Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonElection Countdown: Abrams ends fight in Georgia governor's race | Latest on Florida recount | Booker, Harris head to campaign in Mississippi Senate runoff | Why the tax law failed to save the GOP majority As Democrats gear up to challenge Trump in 2020, the key political divide will be metropolitan versus rural GOP chairman plans to subpoena Comey, Lynch to testify before next Congress MORE and then met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. In 2002, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid him a visit in Pyongyang. In those years, money, food and fuel flowed like water from these nations into Pyongyang’s pipelines.

All this Kim III now seeks, and much more. With a meeting with Xi Jinping under his belt, Kim is intent on reviving his father’s fundraising campaigns vis-à-vis Seoul in the 2000s (when nearly $1 billion a year flowed into Pyongyang’s coffers) and hoodwinking the United States into scaling back sanctions enforcement against his regime. Ultimately, the North Korean strongman will try to shed his buffoonish dictator garb and don the cloak of a veritable global statesman with nukes for keeps.

It just may work, because for Pyongyang, it always pays to provoke. And it pays even more to placate afterwards. With continual bluster and weapons tests throughout 2017 already past, Kim is planning successive summit meetings with the leaders of Beijing, Seoul, Washington, Tokyo and Moscow, interspersed with more inter-Korean pageantries and greater openness to international events. What such a vigorous outreach after years of hermetic petulance will achieve is a drawn-out, open-ended, sanctions-busting negotiations process on the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” the sine qua non to becoming completely, verifiably and irreversibly a powerful nuclear state.

In fact, Kim and Xi would have discussed just how to draw out as long as possible the timetable for “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” Considering there are no nukes in the South, what does this phrase exactly mean?

While most American policymakers blithely repeat this strange formulation (the phrase made its debut in the 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks and is enshrined in every U.N. Security Council Resolution on North Korea passed since July 2006), to Pyongyang “denuclearization” means the ultimate goal of dislodging the U.S. extended nuclear deterrence from the region — that is, South Korea and Japan. Getting Washington to halt sanctions against Pyongyang’s palace economy and sign a peace treaty are necessary steps in this long-term goal. Today, North Korea is closer than ever to realizing these tantalizing dreams, thanks in part to the outside world’s uncompromising gullibility.

Music heals, touches hearts and inspires. But just as the transformative power of classical music could not open North Korea when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra played in Pyongyang in 2008, and could not bring peace to Israel and Palestine when the world-class conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim, an Israeli Jew, performed in Ramallah in 1999 and in the 2000s, so, too, shall the transformative power of K-pop in Pyongyang fail to bring about any change of geopolitical or humanitarian consequence.

But as a metaphor for hope, reconciliation and change, K-pop shall live on, even as Pyongyang’s Bad Boy, bit by bit, gets what he wants. The North Korean elites in attendance shall remember, even as their own individual freedoms and artistic creativity are quashed daily, the night they saw Red Velvet — the weaponization of modern Korean femininity, artistry and sizzling creativity.

Whether it’s any match for Pyongyang’s weaponization of weirdness and fissile materials is a question best answered by the party with the highest stakes in this game, Seoul.

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