Kim Jong-un: The dictator’s night seems darkest immediately before the dawn

History has shown the point at which totalitarian rulers start to loosen their grip, whether voluntarily or under pressure, is also the most perilous

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For most of the past 20 years, the Demilitarised Zone at Panmunjom, on the border between North and South Korea, has been a haven of surreal serenity.

When I visited, it was hard to believe that this was one of the last hair-trigger frontiers left from the Cold War, or that the armistice of 1953 had never been translated into a lasting peace treaty. There was more of a reverential, memorial-park atmosphere.

Not now. Just months before the 60th anniversary of that armistice, new hostilities suddenly seem all too possible. North Korea has escalated a war of words into a show of belligerence that is uncommon even by its own standards. In the past two weeks, the country’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, has: ordered artillery and missile units into combat mode; singled out Guam and the US mainland as targets; declared a state of war with the South; cut the 40-year-old hotline; halted South Korean access to a joint industrial venture; ordered missiles to the east of the country; and warned foreign diplomats that their safety cannot be guaranteed. All this within weeks of conducting a nuclear test.

Western experts say that Pyongyang does not (yet) possess missiles that could reach farther than Alaska, which may be consolation of a sort. Ditto the awareness that North Korean leaders have a history of sabre-rattling that rarely results in action, and that even when it does – the 2010 attack on Yeonpyeong Island which killed four – there is no hint of any plan for an all-out attack.

Even so, this latest sequence of threats seems unusual. Not just because it has been so sustained and included the return to a – technical – state of war, but because it was immediately preceded by something quite different: something that almost resembled a ray or two of sunshine diplomacy. It included invitations to Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, who visited North Korea in January, and to the retired US basketball star Dennis Rodman – he of the Chicago Bulls and the signature green hair – who accompanied three Harlem Globetrotters a few weeks later. What was all that about?

It is fair to say that these visits, Rodman’s especially, went down better in Pyongyang than in the US. The State Department condemned North Korea for “wining and dining” Rodman while its own people went hungry. Others accused him of playing the obliging fool. His own account hardly improved matters. Platitudes about peace and friendship sat uncomfortably with TV footage showing orchestrated North Korean crowds celebrating the nuclear test. His visit also competed for airtime with UN moves to impose tougher sanctions on Pyongyang.

For all the opprobrium heaped on Rodman, however, one aspect of his encounter with Kim went almost unremarked. Interviewed by ABC TV, he said this. “He loves basketball… I said Obama loves basketball. Let’s start there… He wants Obama to do one thing – call him.” Rodman said Kim also told him: “I don’t want to do war. I don’t want to do war.”

Now, given all Kim’s belligerence since, it might not be unreasonable to say: “Tell me another one.” But how about, instead, asking the real Kim to stand up? Is he the inveterate fan of US basketball or the nuclear poseur – or could two such contradictory souls even dwell, without warring, in his breast?

There are plenty of reasons why Kim Jong-un, just 30 years old and a year in the job, might feel beleaguered at present, starting with the rarely noted fact that the US is currently conducting joint military exercises with South Korea – reinforced this year by a stealth bomber overflight, a technology so beyond North Korea’s capability as to be terrifying. There is a new and untested President,  Park Geun-hye, in the South, who is sending her own contradictory messages northward. And China – one of Pyongyang’s few friends – has a new top line-up. So does Japan.

Add Kim’s need to consolidate his domestic position as leader and the global technological developments that make it harder even for a North Korean dictator to keep his countrymen insulated from each other and the outside world and, in Kim’s place, you too could be worried. Is it any wonder he thought a visit from the Google guy might be a good idea, or hankered after a call from Obama?

What these eclectic moves highlight above all is the floundering of a new and insecure leader in desperate search of a connection. Kim may have been to school in Switzerland and know just enough to know that he cannot just call the White House, but how well versed is he, if at all, in how the world actually works? Could it not be that, in the absence of diplomatic relations with Washington – which the US makes conditional on Pyongyang abandoning its nuclear ambitions – he has little clue about where to turn?

This does not make North Korea any less dangerous. If anything, it makes it even less predictable and so a greater threat. But the outside world needs to tread very carefully. If Kim is serious about the softer side he so fleetingly showed earlier this year, perhaps an opportunity also lurks.

As is demonstrated time and again, the point at which totalitarian rulers start to loosen their grip, whether voluntarily or under pressure, is also the most perilous – for them, for their people and for regional stability. Think Russia in the early 20th century; think Gorbachev and the Soviet collapse; think China in 1911 and before Tiananmen Square; think Iran in the 1960s. Initiating a liberalising transition, however tentatively, is almost the riskiest project any national leader can embark upon. If this is what Kim Jong-un has in mind – and, however remote a prospect this might look after the past week, it should not be excluded – he will need all the help and reassurance he can get. Obama should disregard protocol and pick up that phone.

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