Kim Jong-un at crossroads
A few days ago, I was being interviewed by a member of the American press establishment about what I thought was going on in North Korea. The issue under discussion was how Kim Jong-un was doing in terms of fully establishing himself as the North’s new leader.
I voiced some judgments about what Kim might be trying to do, drawing on positive statements I had heard from North Korean representatives at a conference held earlier in March in New York. Those North Koreans had spoken of a new generation of leadership rising to power in Pyongyang. My interlocutor amusedly replied, “My communist mother would just love that!”
I was a bit taken aback, and my silence produced another comment: “Oh, I didn’t mean you are a communist. It’s just so unusual to hear anyone say something balanced like what you just said, that I was surprised.”
Let’s put that press comment together with the latest over-the-top pronouncement from presidential candidate Mitt Romney: “Instead of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama sought to appease the regime with a food-aid deal that proved to be as naive as it was short-lived. At the same time, he has cut critical U.S. missile defense programs and continues to underfund them. This incompetence from the Obama administration has emboldened the North Korean regime and undermined the security of the United States and its allies.”
There, in a nutshell, is what passes for American thinking toward North Korea today. And Kim Jong-un is not going to hear anything pleasant or helpful from Seoul, Tokyo, Moscow or Beijing for the foreseeable future. In Pyongyang he will be hearing cries from humiliated hard-liners that North Korea should expunge the embarrassment of the failed satellite launch by conducting a third nuclear test.
Is there anyone among Kim Jong-un’s advisors wise and tough enough to stand up against that pressure, and to recognize that a third nuclear test will only deepen the pariah’s hole into which Pyongyang is sinking? Probably not. Pyongyang is in the throes of a national effort to save face that may metastasize into a series of circular firing squads.
Kim Jong-un is riding toward a discredited coronation in a coach pulled by tired old horses in a parade he did not design. What can he do? Get out of the coach. Stop the parade, announce that what is left of the Feb. 29 agreement with the United States will be implemented, and that a new generation is leading North Korea?
Is this a pipe dream? Probably, but Pyongyang did invite the foreign press to see the launch, and did admit publicly to the North Korean people that the launch had failed. Kim Jong-un has that modest foundation of truth-telling to build upon.
What, if anything, he can make out of the debacle that has occurred remains to be seen. The best hope for Northeast Asian stability is that Kim Jong-un is wise beyond his years, and that his honesty in dealing with what has befallen him can evoke an understanding response, first from Seoul, and then from Washington. Those are the countries that truly matter in this extraordinary situation.
Donald P. Gregg was national security advisor to Vice President George H.W. Bush (1982-88) and ambassador to South Korea (1989-93). The views expressed in the above article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of The Korea Times.