Kim the Playmaker

Kim the Playmaker

Monday, 30 April, 2018 - 08:15
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper
The football World Cup will take place this year and fans of the game are highly anticipating the Russia-hosted event. We are bracing for and rejoicing at this fever that is preparing to invade the world after a few weeks. I said to myself that I should take a break from political news, which are often smeared in blood.

The world would be a beautiful place if it indeed was held captive by the World Cup. It would be beautiful if it were preoccupied with “General” Lionel Messi instead of generals who destroy cities and their residents. It would be beautiful if it were preoccupied with “General” Ronaldo and his invasions that do not leave behind scores of orphans, widows and refugees. It would be beautiful if the world shifted its gaze to Neymar’s skill, wealth and future projects or if it turned to Mohamed Salah and his transformation into a global symbol and a trademark back home.

I will not hide the fact that I occasionally envy sports journalists. They cover clean and beautiful wars. They interview men who do not kill. They spend their time chasing the ball and its fans. They are not concerned with nuclear ambitions that ensnare fearsome and fearful regimes. They are not obsessed with ballistic missiles, especially when they are in the hands of men who ignore international borders and treaties. They cover victories that do not tear up maps or spark catastrophes. They spend their time following news about clubs, teams, transfers and astronomical player wages, while we spend our time between intimidating and misleading statements and militia innovations.

The world however was suddenly shaken by a development that took me out of my football holiday. Someone has proven to be more adept than Messi, Ronaldo and co. Kim Jong Un invaded the stage and stole the spotlight. The world was glued to television screens. For the first time since the Korean war, which ended some seven decades ago, a North Korean leader crossed the border in the Demilitarized Zone that separates his country from the South. Kim walked over with a handshake, dialogue and promises.

The world was shocked. This was the same man who made countries near and far hold their breath several times last year. He rejoiced at the success of the nuclear test just like a father rejoices at the birth of a long-awaited child. With a provocative flamboyant smile, he oversaw ballistic missile tests, making sure that they can reach American territories. Fate would have it that Pyongyang would be ruled by a man whose future actions are unpredictable and that Washington would be ruled by a newcomer whose reactions are unpredictable. When the verbal war broke out between them, the world feared for the worst. Donald Trump upped his pressure on Kim Il Sung’s grandson. He reminded him of the potential heavy prices and that all options were on the table.

It was difficult for the Chinese president to find excuses for its reckless neighbor. Comrade Vladimir Putin appeared distant and busy with the liberation of Ghouta and Damascus’ suburbs. Kim may have sensed that he would not have the necessary support in the looming storm, so he decided to flip the course on its head, especially after he completed his arsenal and fulfilled his pledges to the military and his friends in the party.

If Kim really means what he said in the summit statement with South Korean President Moon Jae In, then we are definitely standing before a historic development that would change the picture, balances and the fate of millions of people. The statement spoke of an agreement to continue international talks in order to announce an end to the Korean War, reach “permanent” and “lasting” peace and work for the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

The prevalent belief was that Kim had no choice but to flounder further by joining the nuclear club and considering the bomb as his “insurance policy.” Some firmly believed that he would be sitting on a rocket arsenal until the collapse of his regime due to foreign sanctions and the people having grown fed up with poverty, oppression and slogans that had died since the days of his father. Kim, however, sprung the surprise and flipped the script.

It is hard to predict what went on in his head and persuaded him to alter his course. Was he convinced that improving the economy would be impossible without establishing a normal relationship with the world? Did someone recount to him the story of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and how East Germany was forced to throw itself in the lap of its Western half? Did he realize that the time of nuclear and rocket blackmail is over and that Donald Trump is not at all like Barack Obama? Was he taken aback by how far the South had advanced technologically and democratically, so he decided to at least open a window? Did he receive Chinese advice to offer concessions to the other Korea instead of offering them at the table of his expected meeting with Trump? Did he dream of receiving a pledge from the US similar to the one Fidel Castro obtained after the Cuban Missile Crisis in which Washington vowed not to attack it militarily in return for him to stop playing the part of the world’s evil child rocket-promoter?

These are many questions that should be approached with caution because the game of peace is not easy for a regime built on fear and whose absolute leader has an unlimited capacity to change course.

A country can no longer completely shut its windows and numb people with old formulas. The fortress is no longer a fortress. Isolation chips away at walls and pollutes the air. The nuclear bomb is not enough to satiate the hungry. The images of the beloved leader cannot replace the three daily meals. The rockets themselves are aging rapidly without new technology. Why would a poor Korean be appeased when the other Korean enjoys latest technological advances? The new world is seeping in without permission through the internet, telephone and television.

It is very hard for a fortress to surrender. Transforming into a normal state is not an easy task. Kim, however, may have spared his country the downward spiral, suicide and collapse if he chose the systematic change and followed the Chinese example, regardless of the differences between them.

The Korean example is not limited to itself. Can Iran, for example, shift from the revolution to a normal country? What went through President Hassan Rouhani’s mind when he saw Kim cross over to the South?

The world is waiting for Kim’s meeting with Trump. A meeting of two difficult nuclear leaders, but if Kim could continue normalizing ties with the world, then he may earn the Nobel peace prize, which he would share with Trump. The scene-stealer won the first round. It is also likely that he stole the title of “playmaker” from Messi and Ronaldo.

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