The transformation of Kim Jong Un
Is the leader of the Hermit Kingdom serious about denuclearization?
On Tuesday, President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended their historic summit in Singapore with a handshake and the joint signing of a vague but important document. In said document, Trump agreed to provide security guarantees to North Korea. Kim recommitted himself to "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
Whether or not these agreements will hold remains to be seen. But another pertinent process to observe in the wake of this meeting is the loosening of Kim's shadow self, and the unleashing onto the world of the political leader he wishes to be. Kim wants to transform into someone different, and he may be young enough to actually do it.
Kim, unlike his father or his grandfather, is now recognized by the world as someone other than who he was before. Call it the great undoing, or the unwrapping of decades of conditioning predicated almost entirely on preserving the territorial integrity of his regime and guaranteeing the survival of his person. This conditioning turned a boy into a dictator and kept him hermetically sealed away from the world.
But now, Kim has gotten a taste of what it's like to act on the world stage — of, say, appreciating the unprompted squeals from tourists in Singapore, who greeted him on a midnight run — and he likes it. He wants more of it. Long constrained by threat of invasion and treated as an outlaw, his perceived cooperation with Trump is the first step in a path to new degrees of freedom.
As he makes his transformation, Kim will come to understand the past as truly a prologue. This is a man who stands accused of crimes against humanity. As The New York Times reminds us, "Mr. Kim rules with extreme brutality, making his nation among the worst human rights violators in the world." How quickly will the world accept the brutality of Kim's past actions? Diplomacy always requires a combination of forgiving and forgetting, but the fact that Kim — who is widely assumed to have ordered the assassination of his own half-brother just last year — is at the table to discuss denuclearization, and that Trump has said he trusts this man, means that a lot has already been forgotten.
Kim's new axis of action could be transformational for all the parties in the long-term. Just how transformational will depend on whether there is any formal, mechanistic, verifiable, regimented lattice towards denuclearization. Does Kim really want to make progress on that front, or does he just want to use any intense period of diplomacy that unfolds to his advantage, reducing North Korea's economic dependence on China and extending to his people the benefits of sustenance and modernity? There is no guarantee that, at the end of it all, he won't still hold tight to the rudiments of his nuclear weapons.
So, we will have official statements, and promises to cooperate, and steps forward and back, and grand bragging, and probably some venting of frustrations. Of course, whatever the two leaders said in private may condition their individual understanding of a shared goal. But make no mistake: There is an evolution underway. Whenever Kim is in a room he does not control, when he interacts with a foreign leader who does not fear him, when he goes somewhere and sees things he's never seen, when he decides how to communicate with his own people, and with his allies and adversaries, we should see his actions as part of a grand unfolding. He will be making the case that he should be part of the world.