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Duterte and Kim, lion and fox

/ 05:11 AM May 01, 2018

On March 30, 2017, President Duterte described North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, in passing, as insane (“sira ulo,” the Filipino phrase he used, literally means defective or damaged brain).

On April 29, 2018, the President changed his tune on Kim: “He has become my idol …. For all of the time, he was pictured to be the bad boy of the community. But with one masterstroke, he is now the hero of everybody. He appears to be amiable, [a] jolly good fellow, and very accommodating.”

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What happened between March last year and April this year?

Kim had taken the Pyongyang diplomatic road show first furtively to Beijing and then, dramatically, to Seoul; he became the first North Korean leader to cross into South Korea, and his words and gestures, broadcast live in all their scripted detail and surprising improvisations, impressed both the South Koreans and people around the world.

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While the summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in was already the third between leaders of the divided peninsula (Kim’s father hosted two meetings in the North Korean capital in 2000 and 2007), and the language of the 2018 statements was largely borrowed from previous ones, there was no mistaking the genuineness of the diplomatic breakthrough.

President Duterte was right about the “one masterstroke” of Kim’s — the young leader had used his cards well (to crassly use the metaphor of games); he had gambled heavily with his nuclear brinksmanship, and now was feted by both a savvy Blue House and a bumbling, blustering White House.

But I and many others will contest the easy notion that Kim is “now the hero of everybody.”

Despite the pageantry, it is hard to forget that Kim is the third-generation leader who has imprisoned and impoverished an entire nation, who had his uncle poisoned in Kuala Lumpur and two high-ranking officials killed with an anti-aircraft gun.

The President’s use of “idol” to describe Kim is intriguing. It is both characteristic, because he reserves this word and other such terms of political endearment for strongmen like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, and curious, because he cannot expect any military or economic favors from Kim.

I believe it is in keeping with his own, perhaps unarticulated, theory of power. To use the terms inherited by Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto: President Duterte is a lion who thinks he is a fox, and Kim is someone perceived as a lion who turned out to be a fox.

The scholars John Higley and Jan Pakulski write: “Pareto famously theorized that governing elites can be distinguished most fundamentally according to which of two nonlogical propensities predominates: a ‘Class I’ propensity to combine things in innovative ways, which renders governing elites fox-like in actions; a ‘Class II’ propensity to keep or restore things to traditional forms and ways, which produces lion-like actions.” (Incidentally, this is the same Pareto who formulated the 80-20 or power rule, based on his work in economics: He once estimated that 80 percent of Italy’s assets were owned by 20 percent of the population.)

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Hugo Drochon, writing in the New Statesman, provides a bracing summary of this part of Pareto’s theory. The foxes “are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (‘combination’): deceit, cunning, manipulation and cooptation. Their rule is characterised by decentralization, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. ‘Lions,’ on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes.”

That President Duterte leads a lion elite explains his government’s ready use of force and language of intimidation.

But he also enjoys a reputation for strategic thinking; this is the fox-like quality I believe he sees, and approves, in the amiable, very accommodating, jolly good dictator Kim.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand

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TAGS: john Nery, Kim Jong-un, Newsstand, Rodrigo Duterte
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