Nusta Carranza Ko: Kim Jong Un has stacked deck in diplomatic poker

Aug 29, 2018 at 5:00 AM

While North Korea is accusing the United States of double-dealing since June’s denuclearization talks, I sense that Kim Jong Un holds the cards in a high-stakes game of diplomatic poker.

Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, has deftly used the situation to improve his hand while weakening ties between long-time allies South Korea and the United States.

As recent developments show, this summer’s talks have generated little in substantive outcomes. U.S. President Trump even canceled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s scheduled trip to North Korea because of North Korea’s stalling tactics in regards to nuclear disarmament.

Meanwhile, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has been much more sympathetic toward the North than his predecessors, has been especially more welcoming since this summer’s summit.

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South Korea has expressed an interest to build economic relationships directly with North Korea. Among the more notable proposals are a railroad that would link the two countries and other economic alliances. On another level, when I was visiting my homeland this summer, I noticed an abundance of positive stories about the North in the South Korean media.

While there is much to be said for any goodwill gestures that could bolster peace prospects on the Korean Peninsula, these developments make me uneasy. They actually feel more like a ploy from Kim Jong Un than a solid prospect for a lasting peace. In fact, the North Korean despot may be setting a trap and is looking to isolate South Korea while building the alliances that best support the North’s interests.

For one thing, any form of partnership between the two Koreas, whether business or transportation, is a violation of United Nations sanctions. Therefore, these actions potentially pit South Korea against fellow UN member nations.

Further, North Korea looks to be driving a wedge between South Korea and the United States.

Conversely, North Korea has lately been courting China, its longtime enabler, and there is more interaction between the two countries than meets the eye. For example, Kim Jong Un recently paid his respects at a site in his country that pays homage to outsiders who helped the North in the Korean War. Most of them were Chinese. 

If North Korea can truly weaken relations between South Korea and America while fortifying its alliance with China, Kim Jong Un retains his strong protector and Moon Jae-in stands virtually alone. This is especially true with President Trump’s frenzied ways. It seems he has too much on his plate to focus on the Korean Peninsula beyond June’s negotiating session.

At this point, the power of negotiation is truly with Kim Jong Un. As Moon Jae-in strives to play the role of peacemaker, I feel he may be trying too hard to welcome the North, which will eventually catch up to him. Moon Jae-in may be getting South Korea into a situation it cannot later pull out of.

Meanwhile, the North continues to make promises that seem to lack sincerity or substance. As U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton noted, North Korea has yet to dispose of its ballistic warheads. Further, when the North turned over 55 boxes of the possible remains of U.S. servicemen killed in the Korean War, we cannot be certain these are American soldiers. This gesture seems more of an easy public-relations scheme for the North rather than a notable development.

In its dealings with both the United States and South Korea, North Korea has offered little beyond a promise of peace. On the other hand, South Korea is making far more grandiose offerings. In the game of give and take that is part of negotiations, South Korea is, at least for now, giving too much, and Kim Jong Un is taking advantage of his neighbor’s desire for peace.

In this game of poker on an international stage, I fear that Kim Jong Un has the winning hand, and his diplomatic efforts to0 pursue peace resemble a house of cards.

Nusta Carranza Ko, assistant professor of political science at Ohio Northern University, grew up in South Korea and has continued to focus her research on East Asia, including South Korean politics and human-rights violations.

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