Reclusive leader’s sudden softening has left the world baffled about his next move
Barely a few months ago, the world appeared to be on the brink of a nuclear war. In 2017, North Korea tested not only a nuclear bomb and 23 missiles, including an intercontinental ballistic prototype, but also the nerves of the international community watching on the sidelines.
In his six years in power, North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong-un, has tested more missiles than his father and grandfather combined, before abruptly stopping on November 28 with a final shot of a Hwasong-15. As a result, his recent attempt to transition from strongman to statesman has left the world nervously second-guessing his next move.
Mr Kim's warmongering tone switched suddenly to more peaceful overtures in the run-up to the South Korean Winter Olympics after he agreed to send a delegation, opening up a cautious diplomatic rapprochement with Seoul.
That thaw in relations entered a new, accelerated phase this week when Mr Kim unexpectedly entertained envoys including South Korean President Moon Jae-in, national security adviser Chung Eui-yong, and intelligence chief, Suh Hoon, for dinner in Pyongyang on Monday evening.
The optics of the dinner signalled he was genuine about his intentions to "write a new history of reunification" on the peninsula and ease military tensions.
State-controlled media displayed pictures of the young leader beaming as he greeted the envoys. Significantly, they dined along with Mr Kim's wife and sister in a banquet room at the highly secure Korean Workers' Party headquarters, becoming the first South Koreans ever to do so.
Yesterday it emerged that four hours of "warm" talks had produced significant breakthroughs. Mr Kim and Mr Moon will not only meet for a summit in late April, but Pyongyang has pledged to halt its nuclear and weapons programme if the US is also willing to talk.
However, North Korea observers remain divided over Mr Kim's true strategy in fostering a new détente, in part because the secretive young leader's personality and negotiating skills are almost entirely unknown quantities.
Even his true age, believed to be 34, is not public knowledge. While educated in Europe, he has not left North Korea since assuming power in 2011, only receiving a few senior officials from friendly nations and forming his closest foreign friendship with retired US basketball player Dennis Rodman.
Less hawkish analysts believe that Mr Kim's new strategically diplomatic path and willingness to engage is borne not only out of the pressure of tightening sanctions, but because US President Donald Trump is so unpredictable himself.
There was no immediate reaction to the latest North Korean overtures yesterday but the Trump administration's messaging has swung widely between dealing a "bloody nose" to Pyongyang and opening the door to talks under the right conditions.
Some argue that Mr Kim wants to be taken seriously as a world leader, that his nuclear ambitions are driven not out of the desire for global destruction but stem from the fear that he needs a robust enough deterrent to ensure his own survival. Seoul-based professor John Delury goes even further, arguing that Mr Kim wants to focus more on building his country's economy. Writing in 'Foreign Affairs' magazine, he argues for a "counter-intuitive" approach to ensuring peace by not stifling North Korea's economy or undermining Mr Kim's regime.
"Consider this: North Korea will start focusing on its prosperity instead of its self-preservation only once it no longer has to worry about its own destruction," he writes. "And North Korea will consider surrendering its nuclear deterrent only once it feels secure and prosperous and is economically integrated into northeast Asia."
After a challenging start to the week for Mr Moon's envoys, they now face a further test as they head to the US to debrief their counterparts.
Many who roam Washington's corridors of power are deeply sceptical of Mr Kim's real motivations.
Mr Kim was trying to "entice" Mr Moon, countered Abraham Denmark, a former Pentagon official and now director of the Asia programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.
"Pyongyang's strategy to drive a wedge in the US-ROK Alliance is obvious, but the real question is if Moon and Trump can stay on the same page," he said in a tweet, reflecting a view popular on Capitol Hill.
Others advocate a more extreme solution. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham recently shocked many by stating that a war with North Korea would be "worth it in terms of long-term stability and national security", apparently casually dismissing the predicted loss of millions of lives. Such bellicose rhetoric will do little to convince the North Koreans to concede and give up their nuclear weapons.
America's insistence on denuclearisation, and Pyongyang's scoffing that the suggestion is "more than ridiculous" so far remain an insurmountable barrier to peace. Seoul-based analysts, closer to the horrific reality of what war on the peninsula would mean, offer an alternative solution.
One option could be a "freeze plus for a freeze plus", building on a Chinese and Russian plan where Pyongyang would put its nuclear programme on hold in exchange for the scaling down of joint US and South Korean military drills, argues North Korea expert Dr Tony Michell.
The question for Mr Moon is "how far can he modify the American line to allow meaningful talks to take place?" he said.
© Daily Telegraph, London