Taking Mr Kim to the Moon

Presidents Kim and Moon holding hands on the border might remind you of a rather odd couple on a first date, but in fact there are four people in this potential romance.

There is Kim and the North Korean establishment, of course. What are their priorities? Peace, of course, would be useful. A million people under arms (and eight million reservists) in a country of 25 million is quite a strain on the state budget. But dictatorships tend to be militaristic, so maybe the regime is prepared to carry that cost. But peace would hold out the prospect of economic sanctions being reduced, and better relations and trade with China too, on which North Korea is highly dependent.

But for Kim and everyone around him, the top priority is keeping the regime in power. While the government apparatchiks in Pyongyang live reasonable well, the rest of the country is far from prosperous. Losing control would mean a massive political disruption, and a big drop not only in their status but in their standard of living.

For the South, peace is the key objective. North Korea has tried invasions before, and keeping enough troops mobilised to resist another is a costly drain on resources, even for one of the richest countries on the planet. Also, there is the threat that something major could go wrong and the Korean peninsula could be plunged, not only into war, but into nuclear war. And Seoul is, of course, only a few miles from the border with North Korea.

A second objective is the humanitarian one. Families in the South who were torn from their relatives by the Korean War would like to re-establish contact. Being rich, South Koreans are used to travelling round the world to meet friends and relations, as well as for tourism. They cannot understand why it should be so hard to visit family members just a few miles up the road. But it is, because North Korea cannot let in South Koreans who it knows will tell stories of the fabulous riches south of the border—and stoke up resentment against the regime. In addition, South Koreans, who regard themselves as the same nation as the North, simply divided by past wars and current politics, are distressed at the poor living conditions of their compatriots over the border, and would like to bring them in to the economic system that has so enriched the South—which at the end of the Korean war, was literally the poorest place on the planet.

For China, the objective is to maintain a buffer state between itself and the Western-style capitalist country of South Korea. It does not fancy the idea of a capitalist state just the other side of the river. And it certainly does not want South Korean troops and equipment parked on its border, and certainly not the troops and missiles of South Korea’s close ally, the United States. But it wants a North Korean buffer state that behaves itself and does not cause trouble and threaten conflict. When Kim visited Bejing recently, the visuals were all pomp and ceremony and friendship. But you can be pretty sure that Kim was being told to lower the temperature or China would make things even more difficult for him. And here he is already, lowering the temperature. And China might even fear that the US plans to create a defensive shield over South Korea could allow the South to launch a first strike with impunity—and Bejing will know that there are quite a few South Koreans who think there is some merit in that policy.

For the United States, the historic objective has been to help South Korea protect itself from aggression from the North, and from communist politics. It has often said that it will leave whenever the South Koreans ask it to go. But that has become more difficult, now that a resurgent China is throwing its weight around much more. Perhaps, they think, a continuing presence in South Korea might limit China’s bullying of other friendly (and increasingly capitalist) countries in the region. And again, maintaining troops and other personnel in South Korea does cost American taxpayers money.

Many of these aims are not easily compatible—and of course, for each of the four centrally interested parties, there are other aims too. All of which indicates that the new North-South thaw is not likely to produce a whirlwind romance.