Analysis

Look Closely at the Kim-Moon Summit. This Is What a Winning Despot Looks Like

Whatever comes out of Friday’s meeting in Korea, it will remembered as Kim Jong Un’s victory party. Will Iran reap the same success?

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, April 27, 2018.
Pool via Reuters

When two leaders whose countries only weeks ago seemed they could be on the brink of a devastating war instead meet and share smiles, handshakes and carefully choreographed scenes of peace-making – walking together in a park – it’s surely a good thing. Considering the alternative.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in achieved something very valuable by welcoming North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to their historic summit Friday. He bought his nation peace – hopefully for him and the rest of the world – at an acceptable price.

And this summit indeed deserves to be called historic, whatever its eventual results, because we’ve been allowed a close-up look, not just at the enigmatic Kim, but at what the despotic ruler of a closed-off kingdom looks like when he’s on a roll. And this is what we need to take away from this summit. This is what a winner looks like.

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As Kim swaggered across the border into South Korea, the first leader of his dynasty to do so in 70 years, he was arriving as a victor. The joint declaration spoke of “the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula,” but those are just flowery words. Whatever level of nuclear disarmament and inspection-verification process Pyongyang finally agrees to, it won’t change the fact that North Korea has now developed the capabilities to launch long-range missiles with nuclear warheads, probably as far as the continental United States.

Dismantlement of Kim’s nuclear arsenal, in whatever form is agreed on, won’t dismantle the knowledge or dispel the well-founded fears that whatever nuclear material and missiles Kim will acknowledge, he will always keep sufficient quantities concealed to let his regime in the future swiftly reassemble. The world recognizes this, if not in word, then at least in deed. Which is why Kim was welcomed Friday to Panmunjom and why he’s about to become the first North Korean leader to get a sit-down with a U.S. president.

Kim has won every dictator’s golden ticket – immunity from any threat of regime change. He (and his father who began the nuclear program for him three decades ago) have starved their country of the most basic resources, while withstanding terrible sanctions, to reach the moment where there’s a near-consensus in the Western intelligence community that the North Koreans have the tested capabilities to launch a long-range nuclear weapon. They’ve reached the finishing line and won.

That is, they’ve won until the day North Korea’s neighbors and the United States have a missile-defense shield they believe is robust enough to call Kim’s bluff, and it’s doubtful that will ever happen. Kim is immune. He has won the privilege to continue lording it over his 25 million subjects; all that remains is to discuss the terms of his victory.

The lesson for anyone trying to draw parallels between the Korean saga and the upcoming decision by Donald Trump on whether to pull out of the Iran deal will be that everything must be done to prevent Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei from reaching his own victory moment. That means trying to maintain the nuclear agreement, with all its limitations, because it indeed curbs Iran’s nuclear aspirations, at least for a few years, even as we recognize how far from perfect it is.

North Korea in the past also agreed to halt its nuclear program, and while it suffered some delays as a result, it gained time to make progress in the slower clandestine channels. The Islamic Republic is not as opaque as the Democratic People’s Republic, but it can also gain ground secretly while the nuclear agreement is in force, so more inspections, especially of the military sites that Iran has not yet allowed IAEA inspectors to visit, are crucial. So are new and more stringent sanctions on Iran’s long-range missile program not covered by the nuclear accord.

The Iran deal is worth salvaging only if those fighting for it publicly recognize that it’s a component, though nowhere near enough as it stands, in preventing Iran from recreating North Korea’s success.