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19 March 2018 01:19 (South Africa)

Barack Obama and Kim Jong Un: Shall we talk?

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World
brooks on obama kim.jpg

What we do know about North Korean leader Kim Jon Un is that he won’t speak to Barack Obama, will speak to Dennis Rodman, and idolises Michael Jordan. But what if the two leaders find the way to share ‘hoop dreams’? J BROOKS SPECTOR feels the beautiful game of basketball could set the tone for that ‘first call’ between Obama and Kim.

In the past month or so, there have been all manner of suggestions and recommendations about how best to deal with North Korea, its irritatingly irrational leader and his push for nuclear-tipped missiles and those constant threats of fields of death to harvest some respect from the rest of the world. University of Texas professor Jeremi Suri, for example, writing – in of all places – the New York Times has written, “The Korean crisis has now become a strategic threat to America’s core national interests. The best option is to destroy the North Korean missile on the ground before it is launched. The United States should use a precise airstrike to render the missile and its mobile launcher inoperable.”


And maybe, if the North Koreans test their Musudan missile 4,000km down range, during the week of 15 April in celebration of the birthday of Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the world’s only communist dynasty, more and more people are going to put their money on one of those surgical strikes. Especially if one believes the judgement of at least one intelligence agency in the US that North Korea is about ready to marry up a nuclear device with a missile.

Meanwhile, according to reporting in that same New York Times, it seems the Chinese have been encouraging a very different pathway to US Secretary of State John Kerry during his stopover in Beijing. As the report said, “Embedded within Chinese leaders’ convoluted, yet vague statements to Washington about North Korea is a simple message: Talk with Pyongyang… But while neither side offered details of their exchanges, Beijing is communicating its strong desire for some form of direct contact between the US and North Korea as a means of defusing the ongoing crisis over North Korea’s nuclear threats that have prompted a massive show of force by the US and South Korea. ‘North Korea wants to talk, so why not talk?’ said Shen Dingli, a regional security expert and director of the Center for American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University.”

And finding a kind of precarious middle ground, former US ambassador to South Korea, Donald Gregg, wrote a few weeks ago, “The Korean Peninsula is heading into a difficult and very dangerous period. South Korean and US troops are now conducting large-scale training exercises. North Korea is also planning military manoeuvres, and threatens to pull out of the 1953 Armistice Agreement that has kept the lid on simmering North-South tensions for almost 60 years. Pyongyang’s rhetoric has reached a new level of belligerence, threatening attacks upon America with its evolving missile and nuclear weapons capabilities. Such threats are still far beyond North Korea’s abilities, but they evoke shrill responses from conservatives in both Seoul and Washington, and stern comments from our military leaders.”

And so, the Daily Maverick has tried to imagine a direct, unprecedented telephone conversation between Kim Jong Un and Barack Obama, the kind of thing apparently being encouraged by the Chinese. (And, yes, it is probably easier to visualise the longer-term results of a so-called precision bombing run on the east coast of North Korea to take out those Musudan missile emplacements, but it would be much less salutary set of outcomes.) And so, let’s allow our imagination – and our hopes – take the lead.

In the run-up to this phone conversation, President Obama had read the slightly contradictory psychological profiles of Kim Jong Un developed by the Korea specialists in the various US intelligence agencies. And he had also had an intensive round of briefings about the various North Korean missiles, nuclear developments, Korean history and politics, as well as the increasingly dire state of the North Korean economy.

Dangerously, those psych profiles differed one from the other – in part because so little is definitively known about the man Obama is about to speak with via a secure phone line. It is not even clear how he spent his school days in Switzerland – is it him or is it his older brother in some of those school photos from the late 1990s?

Sitting on the White House’s beautiful oak “Resolute Desk”, the one that recent presidents have usually used, are samples of those high-quality counterfeit $100 bills produced by North Korean engravers reportedly used to help finance their missile and atomic developments. There is also a detailed satellite map of the putative missile launch sites – as well as a 27-inch computer screen showing Google Earth’s images of Pyongyang – complete with an inset of one a 360 degree, eye-level view of Pyongyang’s presidential palace.

Before the call actually began, there had been some back and forth about who would call whom, and who would speak first. Obama’s advisors had cautioned that even quotidian decisions like those could easily set the psychological tone for everything that would follow – especially with a man like Kim. Ultimately, the two sides agreed to an electronic coin toss for the honours. Obama won the toss and elected to speak first.

There in the Oval Office, Obama sat at his desk, flanked by a platoon of advisors (including a slate of Korea specialists), with a bevy of simultaneous interpreters patched in from the White House’s communications centre, all to make sure not a single nuance was lost in this discussion. The conversation would be on open speakers, audible throughout the room. Unusually, the Chinese ambassador, as well as representatives from the UN secretary general’s office, the European Union, South Korea, Japan and Russia, had all also been invited to attend, given their previous participation in negotiations with North Korea. The Chinese had, of course, been instrumental in setting up this conversation. Symbolically, their representative got to sit in the front row of chairs. If things went well, he could take some comfort in the result. But, if it went badly, he would have no place to hide.

And then, with a thumbs’ up from the communications technician, Barack Obama speaks into his telephone, “Good morning President Kim. An-nyeong-ha-se-yo? (How are you?) It’s very good to have a chance to speak with you today. I know we’ve never spoken before, but our two nations – and our mutual leaders – have lots to discuss and so our mutual friends have encouraged us to talk about these things.” Obama had been carefully coached to ensure he fed Kim Jong Un’s appetite for respect.

Obama continued, “By virtue of our shared history, sadly, our two nations seemingly are on a course of confrontation yet again. But, this time, it is up to us, today, to turn this energy to other directions. We can aim towards better relations and in support in the development of the economy and people’s lives in your land.” Obama had also been thoroughly briefed on the long and generally unhappy history of negotiations that had been designed to turn North Korea away from developing fissile materials in its reactors suitable for nuclear weapons. The negotiations had offered the North Koreans guarantees of conventional fuel supplies, equipment and technology for domestic energy generation purposes, but they had resulted in increasingly stringent sanctions by the UN as a result of North Korea’s repeated failure to adhere to those very agreements.

Obama listened to Kim Jong Un’s own opening comments that repeated the litany of abuses North Korea had suffered from the hands of other nations, dating back a thousand years. (This writer once saw an exhibition of artefacts from ancient fortified villages in the Seoul National Museum – those outposts that had guarded the rest of the peninsula from invasions by Chinese, Mongols, Tatars, Manchus and others. The museum’s explanatory text for the exhibits – posted in Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese – explained in words to the effect that these villages protected the precious sanctity of a glorious Korean civilisation from perfidious barbarian incursions by bandits and savages. Or worse.) Kim went on to explain his country was, in his own time, now forced to build missiles and nuclear weapons so as to protect the homeland against the newest wave of threats emanating from beyond the fatherland.

In response, Obama switched gears and began to speak about a subject near to his own heart – and that of Kim’s as well. The president had been counselled to find some way to make a personal human connection to his interlocutor – and the best thing seemed to be the most obvious one of all – hoop dreams. Obama, of course, had been part of his high school team and still had a regular, fiercely competitive, pickup game with a group of friends and staffers. And as for Kim, well the world now knows of his emulation of Michael Jordan and his recent moments with Dennis Rodman.

Going for broke, the president decided to make the offer, to draw to the inside straight, to try to connect. “Mr President,” he began, “Look, we both love the beautiful game of basketball. It’s a game of skill and opportunity between worthy opponents. It’s a combination of individual effort, of self-reliance, but married to strong group cooperation. Wouldn’t it be exciting for us to bring a group of major college teams, say Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech from the fiercely competitive Atlantic Coast Conference, to your own country for a special tournament? We could even include a couple of top North Korean teams in this tourney as well to add some spice to the games.” Silence on the other end.

Taking a deep breath, Obama then added the next piece. “Or, perhaps you’d even want to come over to this country for a short visit? We can certainly arrange for you to meet Michael Jordan. [The briefings had noted Kim’s apartment in Switzerland during his school days had been decorated with Michael Jordan posters from his championship years with the Chicago Bulls.] And, say, we’ll get the University of Louisville team to come by for a beer as well. They won the NCAA national championship a month ago, you know. And if Kevin Ware is healthy – he was that young player who broke his leg in one of the final games of the tournament – maybe he can join us as well. We’ll sit out in the White House gardens if the weather is nice; we’ll have a couple of microbrews and some sushi [Obama had read a summary of the book written by the Kim dynasty’s personal sushi chef after he had defected from Pyongyang]. And maybe we can sort some of these things out between us then.”

Kim Jong Un paused for a moment and then said, “I have always revered my father, he wrote many glorious volumes about the strength of Korean character, our national struggles in the face of our relentless, heartless enemies, the beauty of our country’s mountains, seashores and forests, the importance of our crucial national philosophy of juche – or, self-reliance. It is very hard for us to trust outsiders; these are the people who have tried to lay waste to our magnificent land since time immemorial. We have endured invasion, conquest and colonisation by successive waves of foreigners for centuries – but we have endured and it has made us strong. Very strong. I revere my father and my grandfather. My great goal now as our national leader is to bring about the final realisation of their great dreams.”

Obama took a breath and then very carefully responded, “You are lucky to have known your father. I never did. And so, I too have had Dreams from My Father. Perhaps you have heard of my book on that very subject?”

There was a short, barking laugh from the speakers once that last phrase had been interpreted into Korean. Then, after the sound of some excited discussion in the background, the White House officials heard Kim answer, “Okay, I agree, let us meet. Perhaps my UN delegation head can discuss the details with your officials and we can arrange a meeting sometime very soon. Besides the basketball, perhaps we can also include a trip to one of those theme parks like Disneyland – my brother likes them – or maybe you can arrange a quiet stay at a family farm for me. I want some of my advisors to explore how to grow more food so that all Koreans can have better, more healthy diets.” There it was, the small but crucial Khrushchev moment. The blink. The people in the room took a near-simultaneous deep breath and a small smile crept across Obama’s face. To an aide seated behind him, he passed a quick note, “Good thing this not video conference! Make note not ask Psy perform 4 dinner.”

Of course this is just the gossamer tissue of future possibility like Dickens’s spirit of Christmas future – but it is certainly one people around the world, especially those on the Korean Peninsula and throughout Northeast Asia, would be delighted to welcome, should it come true. Of course, even this visit and the one-on-one, tête-à-tête would not end the crisis. We’ve just been down this road so many times before in negotiations with North Korea, as history has amply demonstrated. But, still, it would be a major step if North Korea and America could find some way to walk back from all those lines in the sand.

In the meantime, however, Korea watchers will be waiting anxiously to see if Pyongyang ultimately chooses to test fire a Musudan missile in the next several days. Or, further, if it continues steps to fire up its Yongbyon nuclear reactor to create more plutonium for warheads; if it continues the reported cyber attacks on South Korean institutions; or if it continues to make more threats against South Korea and America – warning of fields of fire. Or even, by contrast, if the North somehow begins slowly to unwind its hard isolationist position towards virtually every nation on Earth.

And as an interim step, in the newest wrinkle in North Korea’s difficult relationship with the West, it will also be very interesting to see if North Korea retaliates against Great Britain or the West more generally for the BBC having bootlegged a video crew into the North to record the dire poverty of the rural areas, all while impersonating London School of Economics students on a study tour. This BBC show will be broadcast on the BBC-TV’s Panorama programme slot on Monday evening - and there may well be lots of fireworks right afterwards. DM

*By J Brooks Spector (with a tip of the hat to Charles Dickens – as well as political thriller storytellers Rod Serling, Eugene Burdick and Fletcher Knebel).

But, to be attuned to what is actually happening now, read more:

  • Bomb North Korea, Before It’s Too Late, a column by University of Texas professor Jeremi Suri in the New York Times Reach Out to North Korea, a column in the New York Times by former US Ambassador to South Korea, Donald Gregg Analysis: Beijing to US on North Korea - talk, at the AP
  • A look at the North Korea crisis (a concise history of conflict on the Korean Peninsula), at the AP
  • PSY says he hopes NKoreans enjoy his new single, at the AP
  • Kerry in China to Seek Help in Korea Crisis, at the New York Times 
  • Pentagon Finds Nuclear Strides by North Korea, at the New York Times  Kim Jong Un, Young and Defiant, Strains Ties With Chinese at the New York Times  Those photos of young Kim Jong Un performing in Grease are probably of his brother, at the Washington Post North Korea leader Kim Jong-un’s schooldays in Switzerland revealed, at the Mirror (UK)
  • Who Will Succeed Kim Jong Il? At the Washington Post
  • You’re the Jong that I want, at the Sun (UK)

Photos by Reuters

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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