North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un just might be the greatest leader in Korean history, ever.
A poll taken shortly after the inter-Korean summit meeting in Panmunjom last month showed nearly 80 percent of South Koreans believing the radically made-over, smiles-flashing, painted peace-preaching Pyongyang pilgrim. With an unshakable 100 percent support at home, Kim’s pan-peninsular average score of 90 percent seals his indisputable status as the Korean G.O.A.T., surpassing even his idol, Michael Jordan, the original G.O.A.T.
Now, after having raised expectations of world peace, Kim is further taming his suitors by threatening to walk away from talks — in the midst of them, as well as those agreed on.
On Wednesday, the North canceled in the middle of the night a high-level inter-Korean meeting less than 10 hours before it was to start, purportedly from angst over routine, pre-announced U.S.-South Korea combined aerial exercises. The nation’s news agency even intoned that the United States should “think hard about the fate of the scheduled summit meeting” between Kim and President TrumpDonald TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election MORE.
This is a special family-honed art — playing the risky game of hard-to-get.
It was not so long ago that Hyon Song-wol, the singer and leader of the North’s pre-Olympics delegation to the South, canceled her visit the night before. That got the South Koreans to be extra docile, obligingly censor themselves and say only nice things. Thus, Ms. Hyon showed up one day late. Ten days later, Pyongyang did it again. By canceling a planned joint North-South pop concert, it kept its Southern suitors on a short leash throughout the Olympic festivities. It’s the same game Kim is playing, on the eve of a summit between President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in next week and his own big day in Singapore next month.
Mr. Trump says Kim Jong Un wants to bring his country “back into the real world,” but offers little evidence beyond Kim’s release of three U.S. prisoners who never should have been imprisoned. With his parallel track nuclear extortion racket proceeding so swimmingly inside his parallel universe, why would the anti-social North Korean leader ever set foot outside it?
Because after a period of relentless provocations, it pays even more to dilly-dally in the real world, where real world leaders are eager to serve up new concessions and, in so doing, satiate their own egos and, perchance, even dream of winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
Inside his alternate universe, where war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength, Kim Jong Un is a superhuman who does no wrong. Out in the secular world of international politics, Kim the Anti-Hero trails not far behind. Since January, Kim has become the master of time, space, and causality, the essential concerns of geomorphology and its viewer-friendlier cousin, cosmo-morphology, a.k.a. Marvel Comics Universe. Should Marvel’s parent company, Disney, create a character based on the North Korean supervillain, Disney could keep itself running for decades with sequels, prequels and pre-prequels.
This is exactly what Kim seeks: Endless sequelization of his two-act play — provocations and post-provocation peace ploys.
While Disney has earned tens of billions of dollars by delighting the world with spirited Marvel and Star Wars sequels on how the fate of the universe hangs on the shoulders of its resolute heroes, the Kim dynasty has earned tens of billions of dollars by frightening the world with shopworn sequels on how world peace hangs on the shoulders of its wobbly statesmen.
“Wobbly,” a term made potent by Margaret Thatcher, is not for the indomitable North Korean. Through thick and thin, from being maligned as a “madman” to belatedly recognized as a “very smart and gracious” global statesman, Kim has stood firm, especially on the need for sanctions-busting Southern subsidization and subservience-inducing Southern self-censorship.
Cajoling the South Korean leader to agree in print to “promote balanced economic growth and co-prosperity of the [Korean] nation” and end “all hostile acts and eliminating their means, including broadcasting through loudspeakers and distribution of leaflets” were Kim’s two most valuable takeaways. Yes, each is predicated on the false pledge of denuclearization and non-aggression, now in its eleventh rendition. But these two stealth steals, which few have noted, are essential to Kim’s self-preservation and G.O.A.T. recognition.
Why? Because getting the rich South to pay up and shut up on the Northern dictatorship gone ballistic facilitates the inhumane North’s domination of the South. A shield against "warlike" financial pressure and "brigandish" human rights condemnations, Kim wants Seoul to subsidize Pyongyang as the world sanctions it. Moreover, the implied moral equivalence between the democratic South and the tyrannical North in agreeing to cross-restraining orders on free speech is an absurdity that further constrains the U.S.
Kim Jong Un, the polymorphic anti-hero, always gets what he wants. What’s the antidote?
For President Trump not to repeat the follies of his predecessors, he must be firm and be willing to walk away. For once, let Kim chase the United States. Let Kim feel the full power of U.S. sanctions. For it is only then that Kim will negotiate in good faith, out of a will to live henceforth as a secular strongman instead of a deified superhero soon to be deposed and buried under posthumous ignominy.
That’s when the show ends, with no more sequels thereafter.
Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. A former research associate of Harvard University's Korea Institute, he has testified as an expert witness at the House Foreign Affairs Committee and advised the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Korea policy.