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Davos Diary: Should Kim Jong Un Score an Invitation to Davos?

The business and political elites in Davos say yes.

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This post has been updated.

Should the tyrannical yet strangely compelling North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un receive an invitation to Davos? The answer appears to be yes: The global elite would love to see the cherubic faced Kim schmoozing in their midst.

“I would love for him to attend!” the CEO of a Chinese company, who asked to speak anonymously, told me. North Korea often threatens to attack the United States, Japan, and South Korea. In December, Pyongyang warned that it could strike “the whole U.S. mainland,” in response to allegations that North Korea was responsible for a massive hack against the production company Sony.

The CEO felt that Kim “meeting face to face” with many of his global counterpoints — Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul all have healthy sized delegations at Davos — would give him pause before deciding to launch an attack. “If he can come, it’ll be a blessing to the region,” the CEO added.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said a Germany-based businessman, who also spoke on condition of anonymity — as many do at Davos. “Take someone outside their house and they get to see someone else’s garden.”

And the World Economic Forum, the Swiss foundation that hosts Davos, does seem willing to invite Kim or some of his colleagues to future events. In 2014 a top WEF official went to North Korea, according to a senior member of the WEF team, who also asked to speak anonymously. Since the 2014 WEF meeting, the North Koreans “have been reaching out to us, in the context of how North Korea has been reaching out to others,” he said. He was referring to instances like Pyongyang’s surprise decision to send a high-ranking delegation to Seoul in October 2014.

When I raised the potential of a future Kim visit with Olivier Schwab, the executive director of the World Economic Forum’s Beijing office, he said an invite to the reclusive leader certainly is a possibility.

“We’re open to inviting anyone for dialogue, as long as the intent of the person we invite is one of openness and collaboration,” Schwab said.

The logistics of travel — in light of U.N. sanctions on North Korea — would be a complicating factor. “They have to be able to actually get into Switzerland to come to Davos,” the senior member of the WEF team told me. Even so, there is a North Korean embassy in Switzerland, and North Koreans could presumably fly from Pyongyang to Beijing, and then Beijing to Zurich direct on Air China without running afoul of any sanctions regulations.

Switzerland not only has the benefit of being neutral, but for Kim it’s also familiar territory. He reportedly spent a few years as a student in an elite Swiss boarding school. “I think he’d love to come back to Switzerland. He’d love to come play and go skiing,” joked a Chinese academic at Davos, who also asked to not be identified.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first invitation extended to an authoritarian ruler. The victor of Egypt’s power struggle, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is here this year, as is the questionably elected Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev; there’s also a healthy delegation of Saudis. Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly received an invitation, though he declined to attend. “They’re quite coherent in this regard. They deal with countries like Russia and UAE and worse,” an Italian banker told me.

They are all fairly media savvy leaders, though: If Kim attended, it might be difficult for him to avoid the media scrutiny. In 2012, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof chased around the Ethiopian prime minister at the time, the repressive Meles Zenawi, trying to get him to explain why he had imprisoned two Swedish journalists.

At any rate, Pyongyang has shown little sign they would allow their top officials to mingle at Davos.

No North Koreans have attended a World Economic Forum event for as long as Schwab — a part of the organization since 2010 and the son of founder Klaus Schwab — can remember. (Beyond Davos, the WEF also hosts several large regional summits and other, smaller, meetings.)

The last known North Korean attendee at Davos was in 1997, by the country’s then foreign trade chief Kim Jong U. That visit came during the height of North Korea’s famine, when millions of people were starving. Jong U claimed that “no one has died” as a result of the famine; it’s unclear whether anyone at Davos challenged him on that lie. That might have been North Korea’s only attendance at Davos, which has existed since 1971. Although a Los Angeles Times article called Jong U’s 1997 visit Pyongyang’s first attendance at Davos, North and South Korea met at the economic forum earlier — in 1989. The confusion underscores how little of a conversation topic North Korea is at Davos.

Perhaps North Korea is seen as too isolated and cruel to deserve inclusion, even among other dubious leaders. Attendance here can be a reward for rogue governments, like the Iranians and the Burmese, “who are ready to come in from the cold,” said a New York investor here, who also asked to remain anonymous.

The Cuban President Raul Castro, for example, who has been slowly liberalizing his country in response to an outreach from U.S. President Barack Obama, would be another possible invite. “Not the worst of the worst,” the New York investor ranked Castro — drawing a clear contrast with Kim.

Still, the general consensus is — bring Kim. “He would definitely be the most popular guy at Davos,” the Chinese CEO said. Sooner or later, predicted the Italian banker, they’ll do it anyway. “They don’t worry about this democracy thing,” he said. “Inviting Kim would be the rule rather than the exception.”

KNS/AFP/Getty Images

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. @isaacstonefish

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