GOYANG, South Korea — Forget about Kim Jong Un, the nuclear-armed tyrant threatening to nuke Washington, D.C. and take out American military bases in Asia. Here comes Kim Jong Un, the international statesman.
On Friday morning, the 34-year-old leader of North Korea, a man widely predicted seven years ago of being incapable of keeping control of the world’s most authoritarian state, will walk across the line that has divided the Korean Peninsula since 1953.
It will mark the start of a day of inter-Korean talks and camaraderie that would have been unimaginable just a few months ago.
Kim will be welcomed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and a military honor guard in traditional Korean costume playing Arirang, a heart-rending song about longing that predates the division of the peninsula.
It’s a sharp turnaround for a man who, as 2018 opened, was bragging about having a nuclear button on his desk and nuclear weapons that had the entire United States within range.
“He’s the master of the bold gesture,” said Gary Samore, a nuclear nonproliferation expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School who served on former president Barack Obama’s National Security Council. “We’ve almost forgotten the fact that he had his half-brother killed with a chemical weapon just last year and that he had his uncle ripped apart with antiaircraft guns.”
Indeed, the image of Kim presented by the South Korean government has been nothing but positive in the lead-up to Friday’s historic summit. The local media have been staying on message by broadcasting photos of a constantly smiling Kim.
With his inaugural trip to Beijing to see President Xi Jinping last month, his summit Friday with Moon, and his invitation to President Trump, Kim is presenting himself as a legitimate leader with global standing.
It’s quite a metamorphosis.
“He’s not just some young buck, some flashy guy,” said Balbina Hwang, a North Korea specialist at Georgetown University who worked in the State Department after the 2005 denuclearization agreement with North Korea. “I think everybody has totally underestimated him.”
Gone are the belligerent threats and photos with huge missiles of 2017. Gone are the palpable fears in Washington, Seoul, and Beijing that the Trump administration might actually go ahead with a military strike to give the North Korean regime a “bloody nose.”
Now, it’s all about working together to come up with a deal everyone can live with — a change is driven almost entirely by Kim’s sudden pivot toward diplomacy. This, most analysts say, is the result of a combination of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and the North Korean leader’s increased confidence now that he has a credible nuclear deterrent.
Wendy Sherman, a former U.S. undersecretary of state with a long history of dealing with North Korea, said that Kim had proven himself to be a tactical and manipulative leader.
“I think it was a smart move to say to the South Koreans that he would meet with Trump and will talk to him about denuclearization and to let them deliver the news and get this process underway,” she said. “That played into the Korean identity.”
The South Korean government — which has a strong preference for the diplomatic option, given that the military option could well lead to mass carnage in its capital — has said that Kim is prepared to discuss denuclearization and he will not insist on the standard North Korean condition that American troops must be withdrawn from the southern half of the peninsula.
Kim’s own statement on the matter suggested that he might be willing to freeze his program — now that he has a thermonuclear bomb and an advanced missile technically capable of reaching all of the United States — but gave no indication that he was prepared to relinquish the hard-won weapons.
“Kim Jong Un has given us quite a few surprises,” said Ji-young Lee, professor of Korean studies at American University.
But it’s too early to tell whether this is a sign of a fundamental shift from Kim, she said. “My sense is that it is still at the level of tactics,” Lee said. “We shouldn’t get too excited about it signaling a change in policy, but I think it has the potential to lead to a more fundamental transformation.”
The composition of Kim’s entourage for Friday’s talks suggests that the North Korean leader, like his South Korean counterpart, sees it as a prelude to a summit with Trump.
Kim will bring with him Ri Su Yong, the former foreign minister, and Ri Yong Ho, the current one, as well as several top military officials.
“North Korea appears to consider not only the inter-Korean summit but also the subsequent North-U.S. summit and efforts for international cooperation,” I’m Jong-Seok, Moon’s chief of staff and head of the summit preparation committee, told reporters Thursday.
Kim will also bring his sister, Kim Yo Jong, who visited the South in February and delivered the summit invitation to Moon.
But shaking hands and planting trees is one thing. Coming up with an agreement that can form a springboard to substantive denuclearization talks with Trump is quite another.
Many analysts are voicing concerns that expectations for Friday’s summit — and especially for the summit with Trump — have been wildly inflated and are now completely unrealistic.
“We all know that this is a farce,” said Samore. “He has no intention of giving up his nuclear weapons.”
Negotiating any kind of denuclearization agreement with North Korea will be far more difficult than the deal brokered with Iran, the one that Trump is now threatening to scupper.
For one thing, North Korea already has nuclear weapons, while Iran did not. For another, Iran had a lot of connections with the outside world that could be used to apply pressure.
“They traded with lots of other countries and they had a literate middle class that could get on the Internet,” said Sherman, who was heavily involved in the Iran deal. “North Korea is much more cut off. It has always been much more cult than country.”
They are also not likely to accede to a key part of the denuclearization process: inspection and verification.
“This is all good but it’s the icing on the cake,” Sherman said of Kim’s recent signals. “It’s not the cake. The cake is him giving up his weapons and the first step toward that is letting in inspectors and letting them see what he’s got and what needs to be secured. That’s going to be difficult.”
That means North Korea will want to keep up the pretense that it’s serious about denuclearization for as long as possible.
“The North Koreans have a strong incentive to drag this out,” said Samore, who was also involved in the Iran deal. “The sanctions are going to get weaker. China and Russia are not really going to enforce them if it looks like North Korea is playing along.”
Already, the new tone coming out of Pyongyang has led to a sharp shift in mood in the region.
China, which had been worried that Trump was serious about military strikes so joined his “maximum pressure” campaign to try to stave them off, is already easing up on sanctions, according to several people familiar with the border trade.
Checks on exports to, and limitations on imports from, North Korea is already being loosened, a Chinese academic said on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive government policy.
South Korean media have reported that Kim presented Xi with a list of demands while he was in Beijing last month — the aid and trade concessions he wants for going along with the diplomatic process. This has not been confirmed by Beijing.
Still, given the course that North Korea was on last year, a year in which it made astonishing advances in both its nuclear program and its missile systems, the fact that all the players are now on a diplomatic path is being welcomed, even by the former Obama administration officials.
“The reason I support the president giving this a chance is that North Korea believes that only leaders can make decisions,” said Sherman.
Samore agreed. “I’m very skeptical but I think it’s worth a try,” he said. “And it’s certainly better than talking about giving Kim Jong Un a bloody nose.”