YOU have to pinch yourself when thinking about the change. Barely three months ago the Korean peninsula appeared to teeter on the brink. As Kim Jong Un hurled ballistic missiles into the seas around him, having recently tested a nuclear bomb (the sixth), hawks serving President Donald Trump seemed to be pushing to give North Korea a bloody nose. They argued that strikes would destroy Mr Kim’s nuclear ambitions. More likely, they would plunge the peninsula into appalling conflict.
And now? A member of the Kim dynasty has visited South Korea for the first time since the end of the Korean war in 1953. South Korean and other Western coverage in the past few days has breathlessly reported how, at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Mr Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, stole the show—along with an escort of North Korean cheerleaders described by the South’s press as an “army of beauties”. Ms Kim’s modest if fetching outfit, her demure smiles, the touching deference to her (unrelated) nonagenarian travelling companion, Kim Yong Nam, the North’s titular head of state: all were seized upon as evidence of a delightful charm offensive. The “princess of Pyongyang” had done much to put a human face on an impenetrable regime. She was North Korea’s very own Ivanka Trump.
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The blood line
What to conclude from the reaction? North and South Korea remain, after all, separated by the world’s most heavily armed border. Ms Kim herself appears the most trusted accomplice to a young dictator who a UN inquiry recommends be indicted for crimes against humanity. He runs gulags and orders public executions. Just a year ago he arranged for the assassination in a Malaysian airport of his own half-brother. Ms Kim is complicit in all this. She has a key job in the propaganda apparatus of a highly repressive state that, in service to a family mafia, sits atop an edifice of lies and grinds most of its people into misery. Yet in South Korea she not only charmed, she pulled off a coup. Invited to the Blue House in Seoul, on which her beloved grandfather had ordered a bloody commando raid 40 years ago, she delivered to the South’s president, Moon Jae-in, an invitation to a summit in Pyongyang with her big brother. Mr Moon will not lightly refuse.
The most obvious conclusion is that the regime, for all the crudity of its politics, remains a master of the diplomatic stroke. The detente that North Korea’s leader appeared to seek in his new-year address, when he suggested sending athletes to the Winter Olympics, has, from his perspective, accomplished much. Stealing the Olympic show has been an added bonus.
Perhaps the talk in Washington about a willingness to risk war is merely part of a psychological ploy to curb Mr Kim’s nuclear ambitions. You would like to hope so. But it may be that Mr Kim really did believe that Mr Trump would launch a first strike. If so, the detente buys time—America can hardly strike while its South Korean ally tries to revive long-frozen dialogue. It may also be that UN sanctions are badly hurting the regime (it suspended recent military exercises, apparently because of a lack of fuel). In which case, warming to the South is Mr Kim’s best chance. The two previous occasions when a South Korean president travelled north, in 2000 and 2007, proved to be extraordinarily lucrative shakings of the money tree for North Korea. And it pursued its nuclear ambitions regardless.
All the while, Mr Kim is even exerting influence over the two allies’ military relations. America agreed to Mr Moon’s request to postpone planned joint military exercises until after the games—the Winter Paralympics end in mid-March. Now, with a summer summit in prospect, he will argue for further deferment, to generate goodwill. Mr Kim will look like the puppet master.
That speaks to a broader aim to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States, guarantor of its security, as well as Japan. Is it working? Mike Pence, Mr Trump’s vice-president, came in for criticism at the opening of the games. He refused to acknowledge the presence of Ms Kim right behind him. He wouldn’t stand when the joint Korean team came into the stadium—some South Koreans saw that as boorish. Remarkably, when he visited a South Korean military base on the same trip, no one from the Blue House accompanied him.
That came across as a snub. As for Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, when he urged Mr Moon in Pyeongchang to keep up the pressure on North Korea, he was told to keep Japan’s nose out of internal matters. Hawks in Washington and Tokyo are alarmed. The fear is that the left-leaning Mr Moon, who has long called for dialogue, will fall under the North’s sway, undermining the strategy of deterrence and international sanctions that America and Japan badly want to keep in place.
These concerns are overdone. Assuming he goes to Pyongyang, Mr Moon will not fall for the same old tricks again, argues Cheon Seong Whun of the Asan Institute in Seoul. Nor would public opinion allow him. Young South Koreans, especially, are far more cynical about the North’s intentions than their elders were even a decade ago. Besides, Mr Moon is an assiduous supporter of UN sanctions. He appears to have reassured Mr Pence that South Korea will not let up until the North is ready to dismantle its nuclear programmes. And Mr Pence, according to the Washington Post, agreed with him that, as long as “maximum pressure” was sustained, there would be no harm in a summit.
Detente is far from pointless. With the stakes so high, talking lessens risks of misunderstanding in an alarming game of chicken. The whole region needs a breather after recent tensions. But if a summit happens, it will produce little. Nothing suggests that Mr Kim will give up trying to build a capability to flatten an American city. The problem is obvious. With no fundamental change in the nuclear stand-off between America and North Korea, once the jaw-jaw subsides then war-war looms again.