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Tightrope diplomacy

July 03,2018
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A photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, released by the Korean Central News Agency, one of North Korea’s mouthpieces, on June 1. [KCNA]
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Kang Chan-ho
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

“Let’s talk over drinks,” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on May 9 on his second trip to Pyongyang, according to a source. The two talked in English without interpreters and got drunk. As they enjoyed drinks, Kim said he had a firm will for denuclearization and was sure that North Korea had to hold hands with the United States to survive. Kim asked the United States to invest in Wonsan in North Korea, build casinos there and make it a nightless city. Kim also said it would be possible for a U.S. warship to call at Wonsan Harbor.

Pompeo was amazed. A U.S. warship in Wonsan means gold. Unlike the West Sea, which is directly exposed to Chinese forces, Wonsan, in the East Sea, is out of China’s firing range and the perfect place for a U.S. warship to strike Beijing with a missile. Also, it is a strategic spot to block Chinese and Russian fleets should they advance to the East Sea. Simply put, the East Sea would become U.S. waters.

The source also made remarks as follows. Upon returning to Washington, Pompeo advised U.S. President Donald Trump that he must meet with Kim. Kim continued to make appealing proposals in Singapore when he met with Trump on June 12. He said that he would make sure to denuclearize and ship intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear warheads to the United States if the United States saves Kim’s image. In the meeting, Kim also allegedly said that China had been an enemy for 5,000 years and North Korea had to hold hands with the United States to get out of its influence.

Naturally, Trump was very pleased. After the meeting, he praised Kim for having a “great personality and [being] very smart,” announced the suspension of Korea-U.S. joint military exercises and omitted complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) from the declaration. Trump’s businessman instincts approved of Kim’s proposal.

But after returning to Pyongyang, Kim flew to China. To Chinese President Xi Jinping, he said that North Korea and China were a family. Xi was pleased and showed him with gifts of tacit approval of smuggling and the resumption of joint investments. There are rumors that the suspended supplies of refined oil were partially resumed. It was a signal to play hard in negotiations with the United States. Three weeks have passed since the U.S.-North Korea summit, but it is likely that North Korea is slow to follow up on the denuclearization talks because of support from China.

When big brothers the Soviet Union and China became enemies in the 1960s, Kim Il Sung alternated between Beijing and Moscow and took diplomatic advantage. China and the Soviet Union were irritated, but had to please North Korea to keep it on its side. Kim Jong-un inherits this tradition of North Korean diplomacy and studied in Switzerland, a permanently neutral state. It seems natural that he keeps an equal distance between the United States and China.

However, this type of diplomacy by a small and weak country is like walking on a tightrope. Kim is doing acrobatics on a tightrope with the United States on one end and China on the other. The key to tightrope diplomacy is the wise behavior of the small and weak country.

Powerful and big countries have many options and can always change their mind if they decide that a small and weak state was playing tricks on them. U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser John Bolton pressed on June 18 that peaceful options would run out soon if North Korea doesn’t promptly promise CVID and start negotiations. They also emphasized that more than 300 additional sanctions that Trump has postponed are still available.

Kim Jong-un needs to seize the chance that the United States offered him with trust. All he needs to do is to keep the promise of denuclearization. Then, the security uncertainty, economic struggle and the pain of walking the tightrope would all disappear.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 29, Page 30