Stop the clocks! Or, rather, wind them forward!
The ruthless Kim Jong-un, who achieved fame as the most eccentric and bloodthirsty tyrant of his generation, has ceased to exist.
Instead, the roly-poly despot we all know and love appears to have been suddenly reborn — as a cheery global peacemaker.
After an extraordinary weekend, in which many of us heard North Korea’s leader speak for the first time (and discovered that he might even possess a vague sense of humour), last night brought news of a major diplomatic coup: the scrapping of something called ‘Pyongyang time’.
‘The ruthless Kim Jong-un, who achieved fame as the most eccentric and bloodthirsty tyrant of his generation, has ceased to exist’
Since 2015, hapless citizens of the People’s Republic have been required to set their watches back half an hour from the rest of Asia, in what Kim Jong-un’s regime intended to be a rebuke to capitalist neighbouring countries such as the ‘wicked Japanese imperialists’ who are fond of standardised time.
Yesterday, that policy was binned and North Korea’s 25 million residents will now keep to the same hours as everyone else in its corner of Asia.
What’s more, their portly dictator says that he’s even prepared to schedule a historic first meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe.
In another heartening and perhaps important development, it emerged that Kim Jong-un, aged 36, has promised to dismantle his nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, in the north of the country, by the end of next month.
According to South Korea’s presidential office, international observers and journalists, including representatives from the U.S., will be invited to watch the facility being destroyed.
The announcement represents the first concrete action following the pomp and circumstance of Friday, when after symbolically shaking hands, planting a tree, and quaffing champagne with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in, the Supreme Leader signed an ambitious- sounding (if rather vague on detail) agreement promising to work towards the ‘complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.’
So quickly has momentum now developed that Donald Trump said over the weekend he expects to ‘have a meeting over the next three to four weeks’ with Kim Jong-un.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last night said there was now ‘real opportunity for a nuclear deal’.
If the high-profile summit between the two leaders happens, it will of course be quite the turnaround.
For only a couple of months ago, the U.S. President was using Twitter to threaten ‘fire and fury’ towards ‘little rocket man,’ while Kim Jong-un’s state TV networks were broadcasting footage of military bands playing a popular marching song called ‘Death to the U.S. Imperialist Aggressors!’
Back then, North Korea was recklessly conducting missile tests, firing one such device, which was capable of bearing a military payload over Japan and into the sea on the other side, sparking fears of imminent conflict.
On Friday, the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different. Indeed, in what appeared to be an effort to crack a joke, self-deprecating Kim Jong-un told the South’s Mr Moon that he was sorry that the timing of the early morning missile test had led to him being woken up at an anti-social hour.
This sudden change in mood music raises an intriguing question: could this young despot might be positioning himself as his region’s version of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Communist leader whose overtures to the West helped bring about the end of the Cold War?
Of course, reading tea-leaves from Pyongyang is often a mug’s game, given that little is known regarding even very basic details of life inside the secretive far-Left dictatorship.
The country is largely closed to foreign reporters and visitors, aside from those who visit on closely chaperoned tours, and foreign diplomats have little access to reliable intelligence.
There is no free press, and the country’s version of the internet, the kwangmyong, which is largely used by academics and civil servants, reportedly permits access to a mere 28 websites.
Yet what little we do know about Kim Jong-un suggests that his life has given him far more of an understanding of Western values than either his immediate predecessor and father, Kim Jong-il, or his grandfather Kim Il-Sung, who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1948 until his death in 1994.
Crucial in this context is the fact that, aged 15, Jong-un was sent to an exclusive international college near Berne in Switzerland, before moving to the nearby Liebefeld-Steinholzli state school.
Living there under a pseudonym, Un Pak, he was described to classmates as the son of a diplomat.
Though apparently displaying little academic prowess, he developed a lifelong passion for Disney films and basketball, becoming a supporter of the pre-eminent U.S. team of the era, the Chicago Bulls.
The team’s former star player Dennis Rodman has in recent years conducted several high-profile visits to Pyongyang.
Nowadays a reality TV personality, with multiple tattoos and piercings, Rodman was almost certainly paid for the privilege.
‘U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last night said there was now “real opportunity for a nuclear deal”‘
However there was also some truth in the suggestion that, as he put it, the visits helped to ‘break the ice’ between the nations.
The Washington Post newspaper went so far last year as to speculate that Trump had given a 2017 visit his blessing, as a way to open a channel of communication between the countries.
Aside from basketball, the young Kim Jong-un is said to have developed a passion for ‘rosti’ – the calorie-laden Swiss national potato dish in the style of a fritter, which contributed to his subsequent obesity — and spent plenty of time on his host nation’s ski slopes.
Perhaps that explains why he has not only recently ordered the construction of Masik Pass — a new multi-million-pound ski resort — but was also anxious to send a large delegation to this year’s Winter Olympics, which were held in the South.
A large orchestra, and squad of cheerleaders, turned out to support the North Korean team, while several diplomats met their counterparts from over the border, helping build momentum for last week’s summit.
‘Kim Jong-un’s wife Ri Sol-Ju is believed to have provided informal elocution lessons’
Time in the West also gave Kim Jong-un a far more cultured manner than his father, who was almost never heard speaking publicly (TV tended to voiceover images of his addresses), and whose absurdly-shrill real voice was only revealed when tape recordings were leaked of his calls to a kidnapped South Korean actress he was obsessed with.
As a result, Kim Jong-un’s address on Friday, at which he described the two Koreas as ‘one nation’ who would in future ‘share in prosperity’ was confidently delivered.
His wife Ri Sol-Ju is believed to have provided informal elocution lessons.
Another key factor behind Kim Jong-Un’s sudden conversion to the pursuit of peace is likely to be straightforward pragmatism.
Indeed, there are those who believe that, rather from being hot headed and impulsive, he is actually a calculating premier. To this
end, it’s worth noting that when he took office in 2011, at the tender age of 29, Kim Jong-un promised to bring his people prosperity and give their nation status as a nuclear power.
Years of sanctions have since crippled North Korea’s economy, with its entire annual GDP of $40 billion coming in at under 2 per cent that of the South.
Though it has been partly propped up by China, that support is thought to have evaporated after recent missile tests, with Beijing anxious to avoid economic refugees heading over its border.
Abandoning nuclear ambitions will therefore give Kim Jong-un a sporting chance of keeping at least one of his promises.
Indeed reports from Friday’s state dinner with the South suggest that — having put away a few glasses of champagne — he somewhat unexpectedly confessed that he was ‘embarrassed’ by his nation’s ‘poor infrastructure’ and determined to do something about it.
That could just be the drink talking (there is some suggestion that he looked ‘bleary eyed’ during the meal) but it seems apparent even a mild thaw in relations will at this stage serve the interest of almost every player in the region, and also the U.S. (since Mr Trump can present it as a diplomatic triumph).
In the longer term, of course, the big question is whether Kim Jong-un will actually keep his promises of nuclear disarmament.
A decade ago, for example, foreign journalists were invited to watch his regime destroying a nuclear reactor cooling tower, in an effort to stave off sanctions.
Yet it later turned out that, behind the scenes, they were already building a second facility.
This time, cynics wonder if something similar is afoot.
Indeed some analysts believe that the Punggye-ri underground test site, which he has so graciously pledged to publicly destroy, is in fact already useless because previous tests have caused structural damage.
Mr Kim of course insists otherwise, using Friday’s State banquet to inform the South that the facility contains at least two tunnels which are currently in ‘good condition’.
And so the ‘Rocket Man’ continues to rebrand himself as a man of peace — while the world prays he’s telling the truth.