No one could have gotten off to a diplomatic start with as much roar as Kim Jong-un this past week. With Moon Jae-in he essentially 'rewrote' Korean history, banning war, even nuclear weapons in the last Cold War vestige. Much has been said, and will continue to be said of this epochal moment and Kim's next summit with Donald J. Trump in May/June this year. Less talked about, but of wider relevance may be the model Kim may be setting for the other world dictators, a possible primrose pathway to salvage their own global reputation: go 'ballistics' to be heard (and not necessarily with nuclear weapons), extract respect (if necessary with flaky pledges), then smile, like gentlemen do, thereafter?
If Kim's unprecedented measure is replicated elsewhere, it would not be the first time Korea has served as a global model. South Korea's phenomenal transformation into an industrialised and democratic society trail-blazed the export-led growth and democratic transition literatures (see, for example, works by Stephan Haggard, Kongdon Oh, Robert Kaufman, and others). Even Bangladesh has been prodded to follow this route. For instance, the previous South Korean Ambassador in Dhaka, Ahn Seong-Doo, frequently noted in public addresses how his country, now a solid partner of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), once boasted a per capita income not far different from Bangladesh's ($323 versus $317, in 1972), but which has only widened ($27,785 against $1,029 in 2016), even as Bangladesh impressively climbs the income ladder. Modeling South Korea appeals broadly to modernising countries committed to democracy, but North Korea's strategy of firing enough nuclear test-missiles to bamboozle the world, then turning to cheerleaders to open diplomatic windows, can seduce only dictators.
Still, perspectives matter. Three come to mind. If Kim truly seeks to build bridges across, and bondages between, the two sides as a step towards reunification, then he must be considered for a Nobel Peace Prize: if other terrorists, Yasser Arafat and Menachem Begin, got their awards even after indiscriminately flinging a bomb or two, then why not Kim? At the least he will have reunited a bitterly divided people before new generations feel too estranged with each other to mix and mingle as one. If his was a last-gap measure to vitalise a broken North Korean economy, not nurturing it would be costlier still for both Korean countries: only with a well-oiled northern economy can efforts be shifted towards constructive outcomes from destructive or dictatorial engagements, while the southern would reap dividends from the military retreat. If his was to buy time by disguising North Korea's nuclear upgrading efforts behind meaningless diplomatic overtures, then we stand closer to the brink where a blink-less Kim must be taught how to blink at any precipice.
This third number was played by North Korea in September 2006. Even if we give this third scenario all the benefit of doubt, the precedence it sets is very disturbing: other dictators replicating Kim's brazen behaviour in other non-nuclear arenas would still unnecessarily destabilise not only an already explosive global atmosphere, but also one tottering in a power vacuum. Today's world no longer hangs upon the overwhelming power of any one country (as the United States had in the 1990s), two countries (the United States and the Soviet Union, 1950s-1980s), three (arguably 21st Century China, Russia, and the United States), or even four (bringing India to join the 'three'). Therefore, transnational, even low-intensity, threats from illegal migrants, drug-traffickers, separatists, jihadists, and the like, have not only flourished, but also institutionalised country-specific retaliation and interferences: constructing islands and naval stations, persecuting minorities, purchasing weapons, and inciting turmoil drive today's headlines.
Kim targeted Japan and the United States only after fully cleansing his own bastion. How he ruthlessly decapitated his own uncle (and his father's second-in-command), Jang Song Thaek, in December 2013, climaxed this campaign, but also depicted a mindset and methodology attractive to other leaders, not just dictators (Bashar Assad, Nicolàs Maduro, Robert Mugabe, and the like), but unfortunately democratically-elected too (Rodrigo Duterte, Recip Tayyip Erdo?an, Vladimir Putin, and so forth). Holding hands with a 'devil' like Kim on a diplomatic platform to cross some 'bridge', much as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had done with Joseph Stalin during World War II, only sows the seed of future tension/conflict. 'Leopards not losing their spots', after all, is not a cliché for no reason.
Kim's carrots should not be rejected, but neither Theodore Roosevelt's quip of speaking softly while carrying a big stick. Improved Korean relations would do very well for a region stymied from fully realising its goals: Japan's militarisation prospects would be softened, and China's enormous economic strides would be furthered by thrusting low-waged North Koreans into global production networks. Broader still, Trump could piquantly wager what no previous US president could before: a meaningful Korean outcome, matched by the dismantling of the last Cold War battle-front (where 35,000+ US troops remain stationed). It would rival Ronald Reagan's iconic 1987 'tear down that wall' moment in Berlin.
Kim's advantage is in facing a South Korean counterpart whose parents moved from the north, and who is too stooped towards reunification to retreat. Moon Jae-in's ascent is intimately related with the ill-fated excesses of one family, the Parks: Park Geun-hye, the impeached 2013-7 president, just jailed for 25 years for corruption, and daughter of ruthless Park Chung-hee, president from 1963 to 1979. Almost single-handedly, the latter plucked an agrarian country out of the mire and thrust it into industrial heights, while both plundered, purged, and patronised the country so much that democracy was irreparably dented. Moon's South Korean reprieve and North Korean thaw could brighten Trump's dismal foreign policy landscape.
Again, thinking outside the box, if all goes well, any 'buck' will still have to stop somewhere. This cannot but be on the domestic front, since ultimately Kim's rogue skin must yield to greater popular demands for transparency and openness, measured no less by more foreign visitors through their own scrupulous and unconstrained reports. Could the tyrant's infallibility be broken? Would North Korea's totalitarian system do what China's declined to, Russia's treated the subject with short-pittance, and that facing each other irregular state alluded to simply disdains? What had hitherto remained a bridge too far might soon become too close for Kim's comfort: full-fledged denuclearisation. Something is itching to happen in Korea's conundrum today: a big diplomatic thaw, a more painful and costlier bluff, or as big a northern transformation as had happened in the south over the last generation. While we wait with baited breath for the dust to settle, other dictators must be unambiguously convinced to not tread Kim's tracks.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.