Kim Jong-un’s Messages to the West


I was so astonished to see Kim Jung-un was labelled “the rogue leader” in an essay in a recent volume of Foreign Affairs, a magazine published by the Council on Foreign Relations, of the US.

I think it’s improper to use such sensational term to describe the North Korean leader, especially when it happens to Foreign Affairs, which is considered an important, serious forum for debate among academics and policymakers.

“A meeting with Trump would give the rogue leader the all-important recognition that he craves and, depending on what Trump relinquishes in exchange for a freeze in North Korea’s weapons testing and development, could advance the North’s long-standing goal of getting the United States to accept the country as a nuclear power,” the essay, titled the Right Way to Coerce North Korea, argues in May/June 2018 issue.

The writers were Victor Cha, professor of Government in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Katrin Fraser Katz, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The word “rogue” was defined as “a dishonest or unprincipled man” and “a person whose behaviour one disapproves of but who is nonetheless likeable or attractive” in Oxford English Dictionary.

In that sense, Trump could be a rogue leader.

But in international relations, the word rogue has slightly different meaning.

In the 1994 issue of Foreign Affairs, US National Security Advisor Anthony Lake labelled five nations as rogue states: North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Libya under Muammar Gaddafi, and Ba’athist Iraq.

As the US government remains the most active proponent of the expression rogue state, the term has been widely criticized. Some critics charge that rogue state merely means any state that is generally hostile to the US, or even one that opposes the US without necessarily posing a wider threat.

Others, such as author William Blum, have written that the term is also applicable to the US and Israel. In his Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, Blum makes the case that the US defines itself as a rogue state through its foreign policy.

Kim Jong-un is not a rogue leader, neither is North Korea as rogue as it used to be.未命名

Since coming to power in 2011, Kim has been sent a mixed message to the west.

Despite of having conducted several nuclear and missile tests, Kim has also shown some sort of openness to the west through various means and channels.

The latter is crucial because it shows how the young leader, who was educated in Switzerland, is different from his father and grandfather. The young Kim has been trying to tell the world his nation wants also open-up and economic growth.

Put it simple, Kim message to the world is: “I want my nation survive on, and I need to consolidate my power, but me and my country also needs to get rich.”

The mixed message is, itself, a rational choice for Kim’s regime and North Korea.

Other countries, especially those involved in the nuclear issue of the Korean peninsula, should read Kim’s messages carefully.

Leaving his stern face of defiance aside, below is a summary of how Kim told the world that North Korea wishes to relax its rigid isolation.


Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh

After a failed missile launching, aborted diplomacy with Washington, and continuing international pressure over the country’s nuclear program, Kim took a dramatic step with his isolated nation, this time with a bit of unapproved help from Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh.

North Korean state-run television, in July 2012, showed footage of costumed versions of Tigger, Minnie Mouse and other Disney characters prancing in front of Kim and an entourage of clapping generals.

The footage also showed Kim in a dark Mao-style uniform watching as Mickey Mouse conducted a group of young women playing violins in skimpy black dresses. At times, scenes from the animated Disney movies “Dumbo” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” were projected on a multipanel screen behind the entertainers; an article in the state-run press said unnamed foreign songs were on the bill.

The appearance of the characters from the US, North Korea’s mortal enemy, was remarkable fare on tightly controlled North Korean television, which usually shows more somber and overtly political programs.


The Moranbong Band

The all-female Band, which is made up of amplified electronic instruments and over half a dozen singers, made its debut in also July 2012, concurrent to the first public appearance of Kim’s wife, Lee Seol-ju. Because the initial performance included images of Western popular culture icons like Disney characters and one major reference to a Hollywood movie, the show attracted a great deal of external attention.

It was also the first time that North Korea’s female singers and dancers to wear short skirts, a symbol of corrupted western culture, in open performance.


Dennis Rodman’s visits to Pyongyang

Kim was reportedly a hard-core fan of NBA before his rise to power. But former Chicago Bull’s star Rodman’s visit was still rather surprising.

In 2013, Rodman’s first trip came just two weeks after North Korea conducted the first of three underground nuclear tests it has done under the rule of Kim.

Rodman visited North Korea again in January 2014, just weeks after Kim made a stunningly violent move to strengthen his grip on power, by executing his uncle and onetime No 2 Jang Song-thaek for alleged treason, according to media reports.

Rodman, in that circumstance, still went through with a plan to take a group of retired NBA players to North Korea for an exhibition game, which soon became overshadowed by politics. The retired NBA star even sang a birthday song for Kim.

In summer 2017, Rodman had his third North Korea tour.

Trump has, in the past, expressed support for Rodman’s visits to North Korea and said they were “smart.”


Google Android smart phones and foreign products

Since mid-2014, phones loaded with high tech games and romance novels have arrived in Pyongyang. North Koreans could since then own Google Android smart phones with 30 foreign games included, such as Talking Tom and Plant vs. Zombies, even as access to the Internet and 3G is still unavailable, according to media reports.

Previously unavailable foreign products, including German beer, shampoo, toothpaste and Japanese mayonnaise are on the increase. Coffee has become a common drink, and some restaurants even serve espresso from Italian espresso machines.


Pyongyang’s new airport

Kim’s inspection tour to the capital’s new airport in Jun 2015 caught international attention.

Besides Kim, the new duty-free shops turned out to be another focus of media coverage. In one photograph, released by the country’s official media, Mars bars, Werther’s Originals caramel-flavoured candy and bottled beers were on display in one of the shops.

There are also a coffee bar with an espresso machine and a newsstand stocked with what look like magazines and North Korean flags.

In a country where news were strictly controlled and censored, what to show to the audience is never chosen randomly.


Kim’s in new suit, everyone’s in new suit

In May 2016, Kim flashed a new suit and new economic plans during the country’s first ruling party congress in 36 years.

The congress appears to have been a ‘success’ by North Korea’s standards, and a more confident and secure leader could be easier to deal with than a young man preoccupied with fending off internal threats, as he’s had to do over the past five years.

Kim delivered the speech while wearing a Western-style suit for the first time in public — one of several gestures that seemed intended to distance himself from his father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il. The elder Kim rarely spoke in public, invariably wore a Mao-style uniform and oversaw a “military first” policy that all-but bankrupted the country.

What was even more interesting was that other attendants, most of whom were much old than Kim, were all dressed up in suits. That was Kim’s strong signal to the world that the “all good, all under control”.

During a three-hour speech Sunday, Kim announced a five-year plan to revive the country’s long-suffering economy. Kim said the North’s nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs would continue, but he pledged that the North would not use its nukes unless the country’s sovereignty was first threatened.


US investments welcomed

After the inter-Korean summit in May, North Korean officials reportedly said: “The country welcomes investments from America. We wish to attract McDonald’s and President Trump-affiliated companies. We hope America views us as a normal country.”

Tensions have been significantly eased on the Korean Peninsula following Trump’s meeting with Kim in Singapore in June, it won’t be surprising if the North Korean leader continues to show his sort of willingness to open up the isolated nation to the world through various means in future.

But we should not be too optimistic, as no concrete progress has been made. The two Koreans are still technically at war. Kim will continue to show his stern face to the world. The North may continue with fresh missile, and even nuclear, tests.


Denuclearization is still a daunting task that is yet to be started, and there is a long, long way to go. It’s something that should never be fantasized.

Kim’s mixed messages will continue. It’s something that Kim needs to finesse.

If the doors of North Korea opens too fast, legitimacy of the Kim family’s leadership may be questioned. The country’s ordinary people will soon find a totally different, much better outside world, compared to the one they’ve been told.

It is unlikely that Washington’s strategy to Pyongyang will have some major change before any concrete progress is made. Kim and his country will continue to face sanctions, blockades and military threats from the US and its allies.

But his mixed message should be read carefully.

No people is absolutely objective. But scholars need be impartial when reading Kim’s mixed messages.

Neglecting any side of the messages, as Cha and Katz did in their co-authored essay, is irresponsible and will not help the US administration come up with the most effective North Korea policy.

Cha was once under consideration for US ambassador to South Korea, before the Trump administration withdrew his candidacy.

After reading this essay, I have a strong feeling that Trump did the right thing.


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