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Could North Korea be sincere?


The nuclear negotiations may end up as usual, but it is tantalising to think of other possibilities


LAST month Moon Jae-in, erstwhile puppet of American imperialists, stood in the May Day stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, and promised a new era of shared prosperity as 150,000 North Koreans cheered. The next day he and Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s dictator, climbed (well, were driven) to the top of Mount Paektu, the Korean peninsula’s sacred peak, where they put together the tips of their thumbs and index fingers to form a heart-shape in a gesture more commonly used by K-pop stars to show appreciation for their fans.


Yet the odds of a dramatic “peace declaration” are rising. Mr Trump seems to see such a step as a means to a Nobel peace prize. Mr Moon has spent much of his political career pursuing a peace deal with the North. And Mr Kim could present one to his citizens as an American climbdown.


This is alarming to hawks on North Korea. No security guarantees will be enough for Mr Kim to give up his nukes, they say. Instead, the North will try to shake down the outside world for concessions, as it has done countless times. Mr Kim, they point out, is already dragging his feet over the commitment he made in Singapore to disarm, having failed to provide any inventory of his nuclear capabilities. That fits the pattern of alternating bonhomie and recalcitrance established by his father.


Yet Mr Kim’s summit diplomacy this year (including three meetings with President Xi Jinping of China) has reshaped the political dynamics of north-east Asia. No one, certainly not the sceptics, predicted the sudden change of tone. So it is worth considering whether they might be wrong about Mr Kim’s ultimate intentions, too.


Could the dictator really be thinking of giving up nukes in favour of economic development? They cost a fortune. He might be able to trade them for an American commitment to withdraw its forces from the South. After all, Mr Trump hates keeping troops there. Meanwhile, Mr Moon’s dream of a Korean confederation, with no bad word said about the gulags, would suit Mr Kim very well.


Which of these scenarios seems the likeliest? In raising nuclear tensions last year and in embracing his summitry in 2018, Mr Kim has proved himself a gambler. But is he overplaying his hand? Outsiders have consistently underestimated the Kims, risk-takers all. But bear in mind that no one has ever lost money betting that they will sell the same big bag of nothing again and again.