Rocket man pushing Trump's buttons

Editorial | Mary Ma Jan 3, 2018
First, North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un warned in his New Year speech that he has his "fat finger" poised on the button as the entire United States is now within range of his nuclear arsenal.

Then suddenly, he became conciliatory and offered to open a dialogue with South Korea on the prospect of sending an athletic delegation to participate in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics next month.

With this turn of events, Kim has demonstrated he can be as unpredictable as his arch-enemy, US President Donald Trump.

Kim's offer of dialogue was unexpected. Whatever his motive, the change in rhetoric is welcome, following a spate of verbal spats dominated by fire and brimstone.

I imagine South Korean President Moon Jae In is more than pleased, even though he's obviously aware it might be a Kim ploy to draw him away from Trump, who has insisted it's a waste of time talking to the "Little Rocket Man." Nevertheless, Moon also knows it could present a new opportunity.

North Korea's participation won't make the Winter Olympics more spectacular, since only two of its athletes - figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik - have qualified. But the dialogue preceding that can pave the way for further talks. Hasn't Seoul swiftly proposed both sides meet on January 9 in the demilitarized zone?

Moon's enthusiastic reaction to Kim's "olive branch" is predictable. A disciple of former president Kim Dae Jung's sunshine policy, Moon believes it's more desirable to engage Pyongyang in the search of a peaceful solution to the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

But then, what exactly is "Fatty Kim III" up to? There are probably two scenarios. One, Pyongyang hasn't yet achieved the capability to strike every corner of America as claimed, and is attempting to buy time to complete the nuclear program. By offering peace, war would become less likely.

The tactic won't change Trump's views toward the "evil" regime, but might be enough to soften the role of South Korea - or even Japan - in the US-led alliance against the North. Should this be the case, it would be a stroke of genius on Kim's part.

It's also possible the hermit kingdom has achieved an important milestone in its nuclear program - therefore acquiring the strategic deterrent capability - and Kim is convinced he can carry on to the next stage after ensuring his regime's survival in the face of external military threats.

Under this scenario, North Korea may seek assistance after participating in the Olympics. Aid can come in various forms, humanitarian or otherwise. Eventually, Pyongyang may ask Seoul to help get sanctions imposed by the United Nations lifted.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson might have been rebuffed by his boss, Trump, after offering earlier to talk to Kim without pre-conditions. However, events appear to be unfolding this way, although the dialogue isn't with Washington, but Seoul.

In this high-stakes game of brinkmanship, Kim appears to have got the upper hand.

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January 2019