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On North Korea, the South’s Leader Has One Key Point: Kim Jong Un Is Different

SEOUL, South Korea — President Moon Jae-in of South Korea takes every opportunity to describe Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, as a “young and candid” strategist, one who is ready to bargain away his nuclear arsenal to secure economic growth for his impoverished nation.

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Choe Sang-Hun
, New York Times

SEOUL, South Korea — President Moon Jae-in of South Korea takes every opportunity to describe Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, as a “young and candid” strategist, one who is ready to bargain away his nuclear arsenal to secure economic growth for his impoverished nation.

In doing so, Moon is attempting something that his predecessors who favored dialogue with the North also tried to do, but failed: changing North Korea’s global image as a regime that simply cannot be trusted.

For decades, it has been an article of faith among Washington’s foreign policy establishment, as well Moon’s conservative critics at home, that North Korea will renege on any agreement made. For that reason, they say, there can be no substantial concessions to the North in the talks over its nuclear weapons until it takes real steps toward disarming.

That view has contributed to a standoff in the talks between the North and the United States. As Moon has pushed to deepen ties with Pyongyang, the backlash from his critics has been swift. A major South Korean newspaper this month called him the “chief spokesman for Kim Jong Un," and an American commentator, quoting Creedence Clearwater Revival, recently referred to him as a “bad Moon on the rise.”

“There is a bottom-line difference between President Moon and the skeptics,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “He believes that Kim Jong Un was sincere when he told him that he was willing to denuclearize. The skeptics don’t.”

If Kim wanted to change his image from nuclear madman to mature negotiator, it’s unlikely he could have found a better agent than Moon.

Moon, who has met with Kim three times this year, has repeatedly endorsed him as a leader of good faith. After their first meeting in April, Moon’s office quoted Kim as saying: “I know that the Americans are viscerally repulsed by us North Koreans, but if they talk with us, they will find out that I am not the type of person who would shoot a nuclear missile to the South or toward the Pacific or at the United States.”

Moon brokered the unprecedented summit talks between Kim and President Donald Trump in Singapore in June and is helping to arrange a second meeting between the two. He is also lobbying for Pope Francis to visit the North, which would be another first.

A central message in Moon’s diplomatic efforts is that Kim truly wants to be a great economic reformer for his country, as Deng Xiaoping was for China decades ago, and that the world must not miss the opportunity. Kim, he says, intends to negotiate away his nuclear weapons if Washington lifts sanctions and provides security guarantees, like a peace treaty ending the Korean War, so he can focus on economic development.

“Chairman Kim told me that besides the moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and missiles, he would dismantle the facilities that produce them, as well as all the nuclear weapons and fissile materials his country owns, if the United States takes corresponding measures,” Moon said this month.

Even leaving aside the question of his true intentions, Kim is a difficult figure to vouch for.

He has indeed taken steps to reform his country’s economy, allowing markets and private businesses to open, giving farmers more freedom to sell their crops and factory managers more autonomy to decide what to produce. Despite international sanctions, he engineered a building boom in Pyongyang, the capital, which Moon called “remarkable progress” when he addressed a cheering crowd of 150,000 there in September.

But Kim also had his uncle executed and his half brother assassinated in a foreign airport. And his country’s record on human rights is among the world’s worst.

Last year, Kim was following his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il’s “military first” playbook as he accelerated nuclear and missile tests and threatened the United States, as well as the region, with nuclear war. But this year, he announced a “new strategic line” under which “all efforts” would be channeled toward “the socialist economic construction.”

In less than a year, Kim has made more concessions on his nuclear weapons program than Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush ever extracted from Kim’s father — though critics say that in truth, he has given up little of substance. He imposed a voluntary moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests and shut down the North’s underground nuclear test site. He also agreed to dismantle some missile-test facilities and — if Washington took “corresponding” steps — to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex, a center for producing nuclear bomb fuel.

But he has yet to state in his own words whether, and when, he will scrap his nuclear arsenal.

Moon’s critics say he is playing into the North Korean leader’s hands. Kim’s ultimate goal, they say, is to get the world accustomed to the reality of a nuclear-armed North, while using negotiations to stall for time and create a false sense of progress.

“We had tried this in past negotiations: offering North Korea a comprehensive package of incentives in the hopes that it would denuclearize,” said Yun Duk-min, a former chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy who now teaches at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. “It didn’t work. I don’t think it will this time, either.”

But another South Korean analyst, Lee Seong-Hyon, shared Moon’s vision, saying there was “a great transformation” unfolding on the Korean Peninsula.

“It’s easy to make the same old argument about why North Korea can’t be trusted,” said Lee, of the Sejong Institute near Seoul. “But rather than being fixated on the old way of looking at North Korea, we should ask ourselves whether we can recognize Kim Jong Un as a new type of leader and find a solution there.” Even if Moon and Kim haven’t convinced every analyst, they have made a far bigger score with Trump, whose attitude toward Kim and the North has changed dramatically.

“I do trust him,” Trump said this month, barely a year after threatening to “totally destroy North Korea.” “I get along with him really well. I have a good energy with him.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also expressed a willingness to give Kim the benefit of the doubt, at least to some degree. Kim, he said recently, told the Americans that he had made the strategic decision that the North no longer needs its nuclear arsenal.

But that transition is “a very difficult challenge for a North Korean leader,” Pompeo said, because the country has depended for decades on the nuclear program as the linchpin for its security. “To execute on that is complex and will take time,” he said.

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