North Korea expert Gordon Chang is not surprised the western media swooned over Kim Jong-un’s sister at the start of the Olympics in Pyongcheong but he says this “political warfare” won’t change the big picture very much, unless the South Korean president acts on his desire to undermine U.S. policy.
Over the weekend, media outlets from CNN and Reuters to the Washington Post and the New York Times lavished praise on Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, for her performance in South Korea. CNN said she was stealing the show. The Washington Post compared her to Ivanka Trump. Reuters and the New York Times said her wordless smiles outflanked Vice President Mike Pence in diplomatic effectiveness.
While the coverage appalled Americans and others familiar with the gulags and murderous repression of the Kim regime, Chang was not surprised Kim got such positive coverage.
“North Koreans may rank last in almost in almost every metric when it comes to their miserable state, but they are number one in one category and that is political warfare. They are masters at getting good publicity, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they were able to do it this time,” said Chang.
He says the United States needs to catch up in the messaging department.
“The United States has a great message, but we are not good at political warfare, especially since the end of the Cold War. What we need to do is to get our message out. North Koreans are very good at getting their message out,” said Chang.
Chang says North Korea has two objectives with this diplomatic charm offensive. The long term goal of conquering South Korea remains unchanged, but he says the Trump administration approach to the regime is creating some major, more immediate problems.
“I think [North Korea] has looked at the sanctions regime that has been put together by the Trump administration. You have UN sanctions. You have U.S. sanctions. Basically North Korea needs relief. There’s anecdotal evidence suggesting that the regime is starting to have real problems because of the lack of money. So Kim is saying to South Korea, ‘Give me some cash,'” said Chang.
But for all the headlines about Kim outflanking Pence in South Korea, Chang says Pence did a very good job of showing the South Korean people that he stood with North Korean defectors. He also visited a memorial for South Korean sailors murdered by North Korea in 2010.
Also, according to the Washington Post, Pence struck a deal with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, with the U.S. agreeing to hold talks with North Korea without preconditions and South Korea agreeing not to send aid to North Korea.
While the latter part of the agreement seems obvious in the U.S., Chang says it’s a major concession for Moon, who is quite possibly the most far left president in South Korean history.
“Moon Jae-in is a Korean nationalist. He believes in one Korea. So President Moon is going to try to do all those things to knit the two Koreas together,” said Chang.
The good news for the U.S. is that a growing number of South Koreans do not share Moon’s approach and are not impressed with the North Korean charm campaign.
“It’s not working among the conservatives who just abhor North Korea. But it’s also not working among a critical group, and that is voters in their twenties. Voters in their twenties have by and large become South Korean nationalists, who believe their society is separate and apart from North Korea,” said Chang.
Moon’s desire to “knit the two Koreas together” was on full display during the opening ceremonies on Friday. Some Americans were frustrated that no mention was made of the sacrifice made by Americans and others in the Korean War, which set the stage for South Korea being free and prosperous, while their North Korean neighbors are impoverished and enslaved.
“In a country led by Moon Jae-in, who does want to see one Korea, who believes in a Korea separate and apart from everybody else, that’s not too much of a surprise. It does look like we were isolated but that’s the way that Moon views the world and we’ve got to get used to it.
“That means the United States has to talk to a critical audience. and that is South Korean voters, to make sure they hem in Moon Jae-in,” added Chang.
He says Moon is a “daily struggle” for the Trump administration’s effort to rein in North Korea.
“Moon Jae-in, if left to his own devices, would do things to undermine the alliance with the United States,” said Chang.
“I think that he would be willing to adopt a sunshine policy, in other words indefinite, unconditional aid to the North Koreans. Certainly that would undermine the maximum pressure campaign of President Trump at the United Nations Security Council,” said Chang.
However, Chang says Pence and other U.S. officials have done a good job of preventing Moon from providing money to North Korea. He says the best case, and likely, scenario is that all this political warfare will accomplish very little.
“I’m going to be an optimist and say they’re pretty much going to be the same way they were before the Olympics. The reason I’m saying optimist is because I don’t think there will be the conditions under which Moon can reach out to the North. I think the North will engage the South Koreans, but they’ll also commit provocations that’ll make it very difficult for Moon to have all these reconciliation moves.
“I think we’ll be pretty much where we were before and that is South Korea, reluctantly but nonetheless, standing with us against North Korea,” said Chang.