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Opinion Kim is ‘Little Rocket Man’ no more – but don’t celebrate denuclearization just yet

Wenran Jiang is senior fellow at the Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia, and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

It is an understatement to say the announced meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is a positive development for world peace. The two countries have had no diplomatic relations since the end of the Korean War in 1953, and no sitting U.S. president has met with the head of state in Pyongyang.

It is even more dramatic considering that the two leaders have threatened each other with nuclear war in recent months and openly traded personal insults, with Mr. Trump labelling Kim “Little Rocket Man” and Mr. Kim calling Mr. Trump a “dotard.”

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Judging from his positive statements and tweets, Mr. Trump is not quite the lousy nuclear-button, trigger-happy warmonger that some critics have portrayed him as. His ever-intensifying sanctions against North Korea, his relentless pursuit of Chinese leaders to do more to pressure Pyongyang and his bold move of agreeing to meet with Mr. Kim, even if the outcome is unpredictable, have elevated the denuclearization agenda to the highest level of diplomacy.

If Mr. Trump is into this gamble as the ultimate deal-maker, Mr. Kim has demonstrated a canny ability to be in the driver’s seat in an extremely asymmetrical confrontation with the United States and much of the world. Long described by many in the Western press as a lunatic dictator, irrational and ruthless, more fond of European wine and cheese than being a statesman, Mr. Kim kicked off a well-planned round of diplomatic charm in the past few months.

First, he put on a Western-style suit to call for reconciliation with South Korea in his 2018 New Year’s address. This came after a year of multiple nuclear and missile tests that advanced his nuclear capabilities to the level of reaching the United States. Second, he proposed to participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics jointly with South Korea amid worldwide anxiety over nuclear tension on the Korean Peninsula. He dispatched his sister and a highly choreographed female cheerleading team to the Games, which broke ice with not only South Korea but the international community. Third, Mr. Kim took further initiative by personally meeting with the South Korean delegation early this week. He impressed his guests with a direct and open style, speaking and setting the path forward with clear objectives.

Now, the stage is set for Mr. Kim not only to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in but also with Mr. Trump. He may well be cracking under the tremendous pressure and seeking a way out, as Mr. Trump claims. But “Little Rocket Man” is no more. Mr. Kim has more than just his grandfather’s signature haircut. He also has his charisma and level-headed rationality when it comes to regime survival.

The critical question is whether the Trump-Kim summit, if it does happen at all, will lead to denuclearization and permanent peace in the Korean Peninsula.

For decades, the Kim family has sought consistently and unsuccessfully to be recognized as the legitimate rulers of North Korea. The current goals of Kim Jong-un are no different from his father and grandfather: removal of sanctions, guarantee of the country’s security, no regime change and a diplomatic relationship with the United States. Short of these, Pyongyang will not give up its nuclear program, the only deterrence it holds for not yet being eliminated by the U.S. and its allies.

The United States, on the other hand, has been unable to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear power after decades of alternating between sanctions and negotiations. If Mr. Trump is to reverse what he calls the failed policies of his predecessors, he should now seriously consider giving Pyongyang what it wants, something reasonable by international standards.

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This means that Washington must stop pursuing military solutions, halt joint military exercises in the region, give up the temptation of regime change, be ready to negotiate peace and give North Korea diplomatic recognition. This will face resistance from hawks of the U.S. military-industrial complex, and suspicion from those who do not trust the North Korean regime for good reasons.

Thus, Mr. Trump not only needs the courage to confront his own hard-line base at home but also the wisdom to reach a denuclearization-in-exchange-for-peace deal with Pyongyang involving the International Atomic Energy Agency and other key players such as China, Russia and Japan, leading to a credible and internationally verifiable process of phasing out the nuclear-weapons program in North Korea.

It is still too early to be overly optimistic, but the latest development should be encouraged, as any alternatives other than peace-seeking efforts could lead to disastrous outcomes.

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