2018 has seen Kim Jong-un emerge onto the world’s stage as a master diplomat who appears to have a firm grasp on the realities of the multipolar 20th century. Even coming from a country as traditionally self-sufficient and culturally “isolated” as the DPRK, Kim is clearly a worldly individual rather than some sort of rogue extremist as he is still often portrayed in the western media. Insofar as this is the case, Kim’s approach to the peace process cannot be compared to the events in the last years of the Cold War where many pro-Soviet governments and eventually the USSR itself betrayed their own interests to embrace the political systems, geopolitical alignments and governmental habits of their erstwhile enemies.
The end of the Cold War took place at a time prior to the age of the internet and prior to the age of multipolarity. At a political level, this meant that many experienced politicians assumed that there were only two or at the most, three political models available to countries outside of the developing world. With the exception of Yugoslavia, which came to a violent end at the hands of NATO for trying to preserve its ‘third way’ model, most developed socialist countries in the broader Soviet and European space took a simplistic attitude that if “communism needs reform” which in the 1980s the Soviet model did, that such reforms must necessarily borrow from American corporate-capitalism.
This dangerously false dichotomy of the late 1980s and early 1990s also expressed itself at a cultural level. Many ordinary citizens of Soviet style states including and especially the USSR itself, had a rose tinted view of the United States and pro-America capitalist Europe. Prior to the world wide web, it was not always easy for Soviet citizens to see what the west was really like. As a consequence, the natural scepticism of many Soviet citizens led them to disbelieve the negative stories that Soviet media portrayed about the west while unconsciously internalising the myth of the west as a proverbial ‘land of opportunity’ where ordinary people lived the lives of Hollywood stars.
Such a schism between perception and reality could hardly be possible in an age where almost every country in the world has access to the world wide web. Furthermore, the political realities of the 1990s and early 2000s dispelled the myth that the US would limit its ambitiously aggressive foreign policy once it “won” the Cold War. Instead, the US has become even more belligerent in its bullying of small and medium sized nations in the years since 1991.
Kim Jong-un was a still a child when the Soviet Union collapsed and having grown up in a world framed by the failure of a post-Cold War environment to be one of global peace and prosperity, he will have undoubtedly come to embrace the anti-dogmatic mindset of multipolarity as both a clearly intelligent man and as a product of his time. Multipolarity is best described as a geopolitical and socio-political mindset that rejects the zero-sum/either-or attitude of the Cold War and its immediate aftermath. The pragmatic multipolar mindset tends to favour the concept of geopolitical partnerships over the more ironclad concept of alliances, while at the same time multipolarity implies a rejection of any one hegemonic power while embracing win-win relationships among all nations that stand to gain from cooperation over matters ranging from trade and investment to security and diplomatic cooperation.
China has not only adapted to the mulitpolar age but has pioneered sophisticated multipolar trading, investment and logistical initiatives throughout the world. China’s One Belt–One Road global trading and infrastructure initiative is in many ways the iconic achievement of the multipolar age. Far from embracing the multipolar model out of thin air, The People’s Republic of China founder Mao Zedong’s Three Worlds Theory which stressed the unity of the developing third world against both the capitalist developed world and the wider Soviet space, has taken on a new meaning in an age where all of the world is increasingly united (mainly out of self-preservation) against the hegomonic tendencies of the United States.
While the DPRK’s semi-autarkic Juche state philosophy contrasts with Maoism, Stalinism, post-Stalinist Soviet realities and US style corporate-capitalism, there are signs that just as Deng Xiaoping was able to refashion Maoist traditions into Market Socialism, that likewise, Kim Jong-un is a reformer who has retained the patriotic and self-sufficient spirit of Juche while helping to bring his grandfather’s philosophy into the 21st century.
Domestically, Kim Jong-un has introduced limited elements of Market Socialism all the while busily modernising the DPRK’s infrastructure. The doldrums of the 1990s recession are long over and in recent years, in spite of sanctions the DPRK’s economy has grown at a rapid rate.
In terms of foreign policy, Kim has embraced the multipolar spirit that seeks to break down political walls between his state and South Korea not through the use of ideology nor through threats of confrontation but instead by seeking mutual ties based on mutual interests that in the case of Korea are shaped by a mutual history, mutual culture and singular Korean people whose political division in the 1940s was entirely artificial. In this sense, Kim has demonstrated a departure from the Cold War ethos of unity based on political systems and is instead embracing the multipolar ethos of unity based on shared goals, shared needs and shared characteristics that pre-date and transcend modern political divisions.
Far from capitulating to arrogant American admonitions that the DPRK must somehow be humbled at the “opportunity” to speak with US officials, during his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Kim Jong-un stated,
“I appreciate that the government of Putin opposes the U.S. domination [of the world]. We are always ready to negotiate with the Russian side on a deep unification on this issue”.
It should be noted that some outlets have translated Kim’s statement about “world domination” to one which condemned the US for “hegemonism“. Here one clearly sees that far from Kim being seduced by the US as so many socialist states in Europe and Eurasia were in the late 1980s and 1990s, Kim is opening up his nation not to Americanisation but to multipolarity and in so doing, he has confirmed to Russia’s top diplomat that he wishes to enhance a long time partnership with Moscow based on the 21st century need to restrain the dogmatic hegemonic tendencies of the United States.
The era of zero-sum options for reformist leaders has long been over, but Kim Jong-un’s opening up of the DPRK to multipolarity rather than to the “American way” is proof positive that while the US might still claim to have won the Cold War, the US has clearly lost the battle for influence over shaping the 21st century. The 21st century is the multipolar age and as a child of the post-Cold War period, Kim Jong-un is not only aware of this reality but he is doing his part to help shape it.