When a reclusive North Korean dictator makes his lumbering way to Russia on a luxurious armour-plated train, the world cannot help but watch. And Kim Jong Un’s trip to visit Vladimir Putin in the Russian Far East was no exception. The geopolitical implications were hard to ignore.
Their meeting started with a protracted 40-second handshake — and ended with a grand barter between two widely disdained despots who need each other now more than ever. Putin, in prospective violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions banning Pyongyang’s rocket launches, graciously pledged his support for North Korea’s satellite technology. Kim, ever the courteous guest, vowed “full support” for Russia’s “just fight against hegemonic forces”.
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Both parties knew exactly what they wanted. Kim needs Moscow’s support for his growing advanced nuclear and missile programmes, as well Russian money, grain, and oil. Putin, meanwhile, needs ammunition, anti-tank artillery shells, and small arms for his invasion of Ukraine. He also needs manpower — North Korean soldiers operating in the border region and perhaps in Ukraine itself under the camouflage of “engineers, medics, construction workers, mechanics”.
This is fine by Kim, as it is clearly in his interests to stick it to the US and its allies in the region, South Korea, and Japan. Why? Because instilling fear into North Korea’s enemies has always brought dividends.
Kim learned this trick from his father, Kim Jong Il (1941-2011), who was a master manipulator. His fool-proof strategy was this: first, threaten South Korea with small-scale lethal attacks. Next, provoke the US with missile and nuclear tests. Wait out the loud condemnations and meek efforts at sanctions enforcement. Then, in a dramatic gesture, summon North Korea’s suitors with calls for denuclearisation and peace talks. They all answer the call, and almost always turn up with cash, food, fuel, and other blandishments. This has been the leitmotif of the past 30 years of nuclear diplomacy vis-à-vis Pyongyang, during which North Korea has gained tens of billions of US dollars’ worth of concessions while continuing to grow its nuclear arsenal. And it has become part of Kim Jong Un’s playbook, too.
Although Kim presides over a Soviet-style “planned economy” that appears not to have an actual plan, on security matters, he has an elaborate long-term plan. Contrary to popular perceptions, the North Korean dictator is not “crazy” or “unpredictable”. He does not go berserk without restraint but methodically and calculatedly resorts to limited attacks and varying degrees of provocations, followed by de-escalation and diplomatic outreach. His meeting with Putin is a prelude to his eventual engagement with the US, South Korea, and Japan from a position of strength — all of which will be preceded by a trip to China.
Throughout its history, North Korea’s supreme leaders have followed the same strategy: controlled provocations followed by post-provocation peace ploys. Consider Kim Il Sung, the state’s founder and grandfather of Kim Jong Un. Sensing the great shift in geopolitics in the wake of US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972, he projected a charming and entirely reasonable persona by meeting with a series of eminent American reporters and a law professor that summer. The North Korean dictator, to everyone’s surprise, came across as not only not crazy but actually very smart, knowledgeable, and entirely affable.
His son, Kim Jong Il, after six years of hermetic lifestyle and missile-borne belligerence, similarly visited Beijing in May 2000. The next month he received South Korean President Kim Dae Jung with a broad smile and palpable bonhomie, thus starring as the main protagonist in the first-ever inter-Korean summit. Peace was nigh, many dreamed. In July, he received Putin and in October sent a special envoy, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, to Bill Clinton, inviting the President to visit North Korea. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright toasted Kim Jong Il less than a fortnight later in Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Un, just like his father, refused to greet a single head of state or make a foreign visit for the first six years upon inheriting power. Then, quite dramatically, he popped up in Beijing in March 2018. His first meeting with President Xi Jinping was followed by summit meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-In in April and President Xi again in Dalian in May. He met President Donald Trump in Singapore in June and made another visit to China just days later. In September, he received Moon in Pyongyang, shedding his previous image of the cruel, surly despot and coming across, if not entirely as an affable chap, then at least as a reasonable statesman.
Unlike his predecessors, however, Kim did not launch this charm offensive alone. At his side was his trusted sister, Kim Yo Jong, who made her international debut at the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February 2018, winning over much of the host nation just by being there in person and smiling occasionally. Thereafter, a series of summit meetings followed in which her brother was the star and she the supporting actress. Together, North Korea’s supreme leader and the First Sister engaged the leaders of China, South Korea, and the US.
At this week’s meeting in Russia, Yo Jong resumed her well-versed role as her brother’s doting deputy. As he sat down to sign Putin’s guest book, she brought out his pen and watched politely. While she may have been excluded from Kim’s private tête-à-têtes with Putin, the visit was a harbinger of the eventual return of Kim Yo Jong’s former role as the messenger of peace.
Since the onset of Covid, however, when the Kim regime castellated itself against the outside world, Kim Yo Jong has played the role of the “Even Worse Cop” to her brother’s “Bad Cop”, ordering the demolition of an inter-Korean liaison office built entirely with South Korean funds and issuing threats of pre-emptive nuclear attack on the South. It was a clever role reversal, for it laid the stage for a sudden return to her delightful old self, which will create even sunnier visions of peace than the one she had created in 2018.
In this game, Ms Kim is expected to enjoy a great advantage simply by virtue of her gender and youth. Her nasty put-downs of Moon, his successor Yoon Suk Yeol and President Joe Biden in recent years are somewhat easier to stomach because they come from a young, slender, pretty woman rather than her portly, less photogenic, male sibling. That is, she can get away with a lot more than her brother.
In due course, no doubt Ms Kim will offer a beguiling smile and engage her nation’s adversaries once again. This time, however, with North Korea’s increased nuclear stockpile, their negotiation position will be all the stronger. And the steady path to that stronger future will have been paved by the despotic duo’s journey to Amur Oblast in their swanky family train.