When it comes to the increasingly peculiar dynamic between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, in the battle for global public opinion, it would appear that Kim is winning. Donald Trump’s abrupt cancellation of the 12 June summit with Kim Jong-un appears to have caught everyone by surprise, including the South Korean government which potentially stands more to gain from a thorough peace process than anyone else.
When the DPRK (North Korea) responded to Trump’s letter informing Kim Jong-un that the meeting was off, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan expressed a combination of surprise, regret and hope that some sort of Kim-Trump meeting could still happen in the near future. It seems that much like their South Korean counterparts, officials in the DPRK were as surprised by Trump’s abrupt cancellation letter as anyone.
According to the Vice Foreign Minister
“We had set in high regards President Trump’s efforts, unprecedented by any other president, to create a historic North Korea-U.S. summit. We tell the United States once more that we are open to resolving problems at any time in any way”.
This statement came hours after international journalists watched the DPRK destroy its nuclear testing facility as part of a collective effort to meet US demands before the now cancelled summit. When taken as a whole, the DPRK’s clearly expressed hopes for genuine peace when combined with stirring images of Kim Jong-un walking South Korean President Moon Jae-in across the 38th parallel into the DPRK, demonstrates that Kim Jong-un is a man of intense sincerity as well as patriotism. When Russian President Putin praised Kim as being an intelligent leader several months ago, it was a rare moment when the notoriously diplomatic Putin offered a direct compliment to a fellow head of state. Even Donald Trump’s recent statements about wanting to make Kim “rich” indicates that Trump has mercifully begun to see the DPRK as a business opportunity rather than a place for geopolitical target practice. Even an odd reference to the size of America’s nuclear arsenal in Trump’s letter could not betray a feeling of regret from a man who clearly wanted to boldly go where no sitting US President had gone before – into a meeting with a DPRK head of state.
While Trump ultimately authored the letter to Kim and did so in classic ‘Trumpian’ language, I am of the opinion which appears to be shared by many, that the person who ultimately scarpered the meeting was the notoriously hawkish US National Security Adviser John Bolton. While Trump in his letter referenced “angry” and “hostile” statements from the DPRK in recent days, what he omitted to mention was that these statements broke the chain of rhetorical good will only after Bolton openly threatened the DPRK with a “Libyan style” scenario whose clear implication was that after a humiliating peace process that would see the DPRK’s weapons shipped to the US, Kim Jong-un could end up violently executed in the way that Libya’s revolutionary leader Muammar Gaddafi was in 2011.
Even so, the DPRK only sought to balance the war of words with Bolton, but not to sabotage the peace process. When it comes to sabotaging the peace process, this was almost certainly Bolton’s “achievement” along with his neocon sidekicks Nikki Haley and Michael Pence.
The clear solution is for the DPRK to work with Seoul, Beijing and Moscow to keep the peace process moving in a positive direction while the US grapples with its own internal contradictions over whether it actually wants peace or not. In this sense, Bolton’s provocations have actually been a blessing in disguise as it allows the Asian countries whose quest for peace is unambiguous to begin thrashing out the details of both a treaty to formally end the Korean War as well as proposals to economically and culturally integrate the Korean peninsula with itself and with its two superpower neighbours, China and Russia.
But while the phones in Pyongyang will likely be ringing officials in China and Russia with ever more intensity and while the same should be done in respect of speaking to officials in Seoul, the DPRK should also reach out to the global public in the most effective and direct means possible. Put simply, the DPRK needs to get official international/multi-lingual social media accounts.
Among the “leaders who are Tweeters”, Donald Trump, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and India’s Premier Narendra Modi are among the most prolific. In fact, Erdogan Tweets not only in Turkish but in English, Russian, Arabic and has recently sent Tweets in both Serbian and Korean.
The DPRK has clearly built up good will throughout the course of the 2018 peace process as the world has come to see that the country isn’t the cartoonish stereotype of satirical films like Team America: World Police (a film which actually satirised American foreign policy arrogance more than the culture of the DPRK), but is instead a part voluntarily and part circumstantially isolated country that is now willing to break out of this reality to engage in respectful and meaningful ways with all there of its neighbours as well as the United States itself.
South Korean officials have described Kim Jong-un as a man of good humour who in private has an understanding of the negative stereotypes the media has assigned him and is able to play upon them with a clever, mature and good natured self-deprecating humour. This was partly revealed in public when Kim told Moon Jae-in that the DPRK’s missile-tests will no longer keep him awake at night. Meanwhile in the South, the DPRK’s signature noodle dish naengmyeon which was gifted to Moon by Kim, has become an unexpected hit in restaurants south of the 38th parallel, while it is said that Kim Jong-un’s personal popularity rating in the South has rocketed to over 80%.
The best way for Kim and his deputies to capitalise on this is to open up accounts on platforms like the US based Twitter, China’s Weibo and the internationally popular Russian group messenger service Telegram. On these platforms, with the help of translators, Kim can tell the wider world what he is thinking and what the DPRK wants, just as many other world leaders already do so, most notably Donald Trump himself.
The popularity of several DPRK parody Twitter accounts include one purporting to be Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho indicates that there is a healthy global appetite for news directly from the DPRK. While many in South Korea, Japan and the US are now seeing Kim Jong-un as a potential peace maker rather than a threat, he can now harness this good will and speak over the heads of foreign pundits and go straight to his global audience.
Because the Korean peace process is about perception as much as reality (just as all major geopolitical events are in the 21st century), one of the best “weapons” in the DPRK’s arsenal could be a social media account and luckily this is a weapon that no one seeks to disarm. While John Bolton has become the real cartoonish figure in the entire process, due both to his policies and to his rather antiquated style of facial hair, the DPRK could take the high ground in shamming the US neocons who are allergic to the kind of peace that the rest of the world wants for Korea.
While in the course peace process, Donald Trump could learn a great deal from the Asian authors, owners and executors of the process as a whole, when it comes to communication devices, Kim Jong-un should take a lesson from Trump’s playbook and begin Tweeting the world that the DPRK clearly wants to immerse itself in as never before.