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N.K. leader Kim revs up high-stakes diplomacy

With a "nuclear button" and unchallenged authority at home, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is now looking beyond his borders, forging ahead with a diplomatic adventure that could turn his country from an introvert into a player of geostrategic significance, experts said Thursday.

Friday's summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will be the centerpiece of a flurry of diplomatic outreach apparently aimed at easing global sanctions, shoring up his country's debilitated economy and further cementing his grip on power.

The summit, along with Kim's planned encounter with U.S. President Donald Trump in May or June, will also be a touchstone that will shed light on how willing Kim is to take steps towards denuclearization and lasting peace on the peninsula, the twin goals that have bedeviled Seoul and Washington for decades.

Kim's engagement with the outside world began with sports diplomacy at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in the South in February and gained traction with him agreeing to the summit with Moon and his overture for talks with Trump.

Further spurring his drive was his Workers' Party's surprise decision last Friday to halt nuclear and long-range missile tests; close its key nuclear experiment site; and adopt a "new strategic line" focusing on economic development.

The decision is seen as a symbolic, albeit substantively tenuous, step to set the tone for cooperation with Seoul and Washington, which have persistently demanded Pyongyang's "sincerity" in committing to denuclearization.

This image, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (Yonhap)

Pivot to peace offensive

Kim's pivot away from his provocative streak came amid rising threats of U.S. military action and after years of incremental sanctions that observers say have crippled his country's economy and eroded grassroots support and loyalty from the elites.

America's increasingly tough stance on Pyongyang's saber-rattling, including its sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September last year, has also helped alter Kim's strategic calculus on his nuclear arsenal.

"A combination of North Korea's deepening economic crisis and U.S. military threats appear to have led Kim to come out for talks," Kim Tae-hyun, diplomacy professor at Chung-Ang University, told Yonhap News Agency.

"What might have frightened the North was Washington's repeated signals that it could shift to military options because all diplomatic options have so far been exhausted," he added.

Shortly after the latest nuclear test, Washington flew two of its strategic B-1B bombers and six F-15C fighter jets in the international airspace north of the Northern Limit Line, a de facto inter-Korean sea border, in a show of force.

The flight was followed by other formidable displays of America's military heft, such as the rare mobilization of its three aircraft carriers in the East Sea in November and the "Vigilant" air combat exercise, the largest-ever allied drills, involving more than 230 warplanes, in December.

The exchange of diatribes between Kim and Trump also highlighted the urgent impetus for a return to diplomacy amid growing fears that their potential miscalculations -- or misperceptions -- could lead to unintended armed clashes.

Last year, Washington officials also repeatedly said, "All options are on the table" -- diplomatic parlance for the potential use of force to tackle an intractable quandary with an adversary.

Washington has continued to signal its hard-line stance by swelling its security team with the addition of two security hawks: Mike Pompeo, nominee for the Secretary of State, and John Bolton, chief presidential security advisor.

Through its nuclear posture review in February, Washington also showed its intent to deploy "low-yield" nuclear weapons, which analysts said would circumscribe damage to an adversary but could lower the psychological threshold for the use of nuclear arms.

US-led air strikes against suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria earlier this month served as the latest warning that Washington could resort to military action short of a full-scale war, when it is deemed necessary for safeguarding peace and international norms.

Sources of Kim's confidence

Kim's move to look beyond his own borders reflects his confidence in controlling state affairs.

Relying on a reign of terror upon taking power in late 2011, the inexperienced leader has been seen purging potential rivals or dissidents and carrying out frequent reshuffles of Army generals to instill loyalty.

He was also said to have systematically institutionalized his leadership by bolstering the role of the ruling Workers' Party and attenuating the influence of the rigid military brass, who once held considerable sway over state affairs during the era of his late father, Kim Jong-il.

"Kim of today is diametrically different from what he used to be back in 2011," said Kim Yeol-su, the head of security strategy at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs.

The North Korean leader's self-esteem has been buoyed by an assortment of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles that his regime argues can strike all U.S. military bases in the Pacific and the U.S. mainland, though questions remain over their operational utility.

The military beef-up has been seen as part of Kim's broader strategy to keep American forces at bay, undercut the U.S. nuclear umbrella and eventually decouple the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

N. Korea driven into geopolitics

Kim's summit diplomacy started with a surprise tete-a-tete with Chinese leader Xi Jinping last month, in his first known overseas trip since taking office in 2011.

This image, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Yonhap)

The summit, which preceded Kim's talks with the South Korean and U.S. leaders, triggered speculation that he may be staging a tricky balancing act between traditional ally China and the U.S. to maximize diplomatic gains.

The Kim-Xi talks that followed years of estrangement came as Beijing appeared increasingly wary of the possibility that Pyongyang could edge closer to Washington, with which it has clashed on multiple fronts, from trade to maritime security to its "core value" issue of Taiwan.

Such concerns of Beijing underline Pyongyang's growing geopolitical value, analysts said.

"From Xi's perspective, he cannot give up North Korea, as damaged ties with Pyongyang could put the Chinese leader in a diplomatically, militarily and politically difficult position amid the great-power rivalry for regional primacy," Suh Jin-young, professor emeritus of Korea University, told Yonhap.

The North has also become of strategic value for Trump, analysts said, as he needs to shore up domestic public opinion with a major diplomatic coup ahead of the November midterm elections in the U.S. The unorthodox president may also eye a coveted place in history by negotiating a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War that was halted only with a truce.

"(The two Koreas) are discussing an end to the war. So, subject to a deal, they would certainly have my blessing. And they do have my blessing to discuss that," Trump said at a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Florida last week.

Hopes to shed straitjacket of sanctions

Kim's change of course towards dialogue may also be driven by his country's worsening economic travails that could threaten the delicate mix of coercion and forced public consent -- the key elements that anchor his dynastic family's rule.

Sanctions that have dried up Kim's cash coffers also threatened to hurt his dynastic family's long-standing tactic of statecraft: compelling the elites' loyalty with a slew of gifts unthinkable for ordinary citizens, such as luxury watches and cars, North Korea watchers said.

Particularly, Beijing's active enforcement of the U.N. Security Council sanctions has dealt a critical blow to the North's economy, given that the world's second-largest economy accounts for some 90 percent of Pyongyang's overseas trade.

"The living standards of everyday North Koreans may also be a source of concern for Kim vis-a-vis his regime security," Park Won-gon, a security expert at Handong Global University, said. "With the North's increasingly reliance on trade, the sanctions might have greatly impacted its economy."

Hwi Won  edt@koreapost.com

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