Monday 17 December 2018

Sister's charm offensive all just part of Kim's strategy

South Korean President Moon Jae-in talks with Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, while watching North Korea’s Samjiyon Orchestra’s performance in Seoul. Photo: REUTERS
South Korean President Moon Jae-in talks with Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, while watching North Korea’s Samjiyon Orchestra’s performance in Seoul. Photo: REUTERS

David Tweed, Kanga Kong and Andy Sharp in Seoul

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un deployed a new weapon at the Olympics to fight back against US President Donald Trump's sanctions and threats of a pre-emptive strike against his nuclear programme: His sister.

Kim Yo Jong shook hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, cheered enthusiastically for a unified Korean team and displayed a sense of humour in weekend meetings. She also delivered a letter inviting Mr Moon to a summit with her brother in Pyongyang and asked him to play a "leading role" in reuniting the two Koreas after nearly seven decades.

"I never expected to come here on such short notice to be honest, and I thought it would be strange and different but it's not," Ms Kim said at a dinner last night before heading home.

"There are many things similar and the same. I hope we can quickly become one and meet these good people again in Pyongyang."

The warm words served to further exploit divisions between the US and South Korea, which differ on the best way to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons.

Her visit was a charm offensive to counter the American narrative that Kim Jong-un is a madman who tortures his own people and would blow up Los Angeles or New York City if he didn't get his way.

North Korea's participation in the Olympics has already allowed Mr Kim to undermine President Trump's campaign, with some sanctions suspended temporarily until the event ends. In pushing for a Korean summit, Mr Kim is seeking to consolidate those gains while maintaining his nuclear arsenal to deter a US invasion.

The question now is whether the US and South Korea can stay united in keeping up the pressure on North Korea just as sanctions limiting export revenue and curbing fuel imports start to bite.

Mr Kim's proposal for a summit was "a brilliant diplomatic manoeuvre" said Andrei Lankov, a historian at Kookmin University in Seoul who once studied in Pyongyang.

Mr Moon would irritate Mr Trump if he accepts the invitation, while declining would make America and South Korea appear "unreasonably bellicose", he said.

"The proposal, as well as North Korea's presence at the Games, sends a signal the North Koreans are ready to talk," Mr Lankov said. "And this signal helps the opponents of a military operation in Washington and elsewhere."

US vice-president Mike Pence has been attending the Games and he repeated there was "no daylight" between the US, South Korea and Japan in pushing to isolate North Korea until Mr Kim abandons his nuclear programme.

But North Korea watchers aren't convinced Mr Moon will stay on script. He came to power promising a softer approach to Pyongyang and has sought a summit with the North's dictator.

"I worry he won't want to miss the opportunity to further a new 'sunshine policy' and peace engagement," Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, said of the South leader. "Going to Pyongyang unconditionally would be a really bad development and cause real concern with the US that Moon may give too much away."

However, Mr Kim has shown no signs of being willing to discuss denuclearisation. And Mr Moon won't have much space to negotiate without US backing, said Christopher Green, senior adviser on Korea at the International Crisis Group in Amsterdam.

"His goal is to do enough on the inter-Korean front to get the United States and North Korea to jaw-jaw," Mr Green said. "The real strategic games have only just begun."

Irish Independent

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