When senior South Korean envoys sat down this week with North Korea’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong Un, they had a series of talking points in hand for a man whose diplomatic experience was limited to meetings with officials from China, Cuba and Syria.
It was a rare chance to make the case for nuclear disarmament directly to Kim, but it was also an unusual opportunity to size up a young dictator who has remained an enigma even as his weapons tests have terrified the world.
Even so, South Korean officials said, the envoys were not prepared for how “forthcoming and daring” Kim was over the course of more than four hours Monday.
They had prepared to appeal to Kim not to let joint military exercises that South Korea and the United States will start in April derail a fragile détente. Traditionally, North Korea has countered such drills by conducting major missile tests.
“We hope you can make another bold decision so we can overcome this hurdle,” read a bullet point in the handwritten memo of the South’s chief delegate, Chung Eui-yong, an image of which was captured by the North’s state-run television.
Kim, who is just 34, surprised the much older South Korean diplomats not only by accepting joint South Korean-U.S. military drills but also by expressing his willingness to start negotiations with Washington on ending his nuclear weapons program. He also told them he would suspend all nuclear and ballistic missile tests while talks were underway.
It was an eye-catching debut for Kim in international diplomacy.
It was also a remarkable shift coming from Kim just months after he raised fears of war on the Korean Peninsula by launching a barrage of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests. Considered by many to be a ruthless dictator with a reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons, Kim was now breaking the usual protocols in hosting the South Korean envoys, who came to appeal to him to change course.
For the first time, the South Korean officials were invited into the headquarters of Kim’s ruling Workers’ Party, where he maintains an office. He beamed across the negotiating table, while the South Korean officials appeared to hang on his every word. His wife, Ri Sol Ju, was the first North Korean first lady to be introduced to South Korean guests. When it was time for the guests to leave after more than four hours of talking and dining, Kim walked them out and sent them off with smiles and waves.
“As a leader of a rogue state, he is a tough case to deal with,” said Kim Sung-han, a former vice foreign minister of South Korea who teaches at Korea University in Seoul, the South’s capital. “He has the guts but also is very strong in details. He is ambitious and has a desire to win.”
His father, Kim Jong Il, ruled North Korea as a secretive and dour dictator until his death in 2011. The younger Kim, who attended a Swiss boarding school, has cast himself as a smiling, outgoing and youthful leader even as he has consolidated his totalitarian power with bloody purges of elites. This week, he played the seasoned diplomat by presiding over a roomful of reverential negotiators from the South — a point the North’s propaganda-filled state media did not miss in highlighting with front-page articles and large color photographs. Kim Jong Un is set to travel to the border with South Korea for a summit meeting in late April with the South’s president, Moon Jae-in.
But in the playbook of North Korea’s opaque regime, agreeing to denuclearization talks is no guarantee that the country will start dismantling its nuclear arsenal. In offering to join such negotiations, Kim said he would give up his nuclear weapons only when he felt no more military threats from outside. Previous efforts all collapsed over the same hurdle: how much the United States should do to make North Korea feel secure enough to give up its weapons.
The Trump administration has escalated economic pressure, backed by threats of military force, to deal with North Korea. President Donald Trump has said he is open to talks “only under the right conditions,” and officials have insisted that the North take actions that would convince them of its sincerity to denuclearize before negotiations can begin.
Some analysts warned that hidden behind Kim’s charm offensive was a wily attempt to fend off harsh international sanctions and to deflate talk of military action coming from Washington. With the United Nations banning major North Korean exports, including coal, fish and textiles, its exports to China, its sole major trading partner, have plummeted 60 percent to 80 percent in recent months, a potentially crippling blow to Kim’s ability to revive his country’s economy and keep his elites happy with bribes.
“Either Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s resolution to be a nice guy is real or his smiles and soft messages for Seoul are a ploy for buying time and money to perfect his own nuclear posture review,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a Korea expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Although Moon, the South’s leader, has repeatedly called for dialogue with Pyongyang, relations were deadlocked until Kim used his New Year’s Day speech to propose an inter-Korean dialogue and offer to send hundreds of athletes and cheerleaders to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Kim also sent his sister, Kim Yo Jong, to meet Moon and invite him to a summit meeting.
U.S. officials were quick to take credit, arguing that their campaign for “maximum” pressure was forcing Kim Jong Un’s hand. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said last month: “Sending cheerleaders to Pyeongchang was a sign of desperation, not national pride.”
But Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said there was also something else at play: Kim Jong Un’s self-confidence that he had a nuclear deterrent he hoped would give him far more leverage in dealing with Washington and Seoul than his father ever had. North Korea now says that it would come to any talks with Washington as an “equal” nuclear power.
“We see him increasingly self-confident about what he is doing,” Koh said. “If we look at what has happened in the past couple months, it was Kim Jong Un who took the initiative in each key moment.”
Kim spent his first years in office establishing an unchallenged authority at home and building a nuclear arsenal. But he still faces a policy goal his father failed to achieve: reviving the moribund economy. Some analysts say Kim may have realized that he cannot do so without making a compromise over his nuclear weapons program.
“He wanted to show his confidence and stability in his power,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “But the economy is his last challenge in quieting the people’s discontent and establishing his leadership, and he knows that he cannot improve the economy without improving ties with South Korea and the United States.”
But given the long history of war, armed skirmishes, sabotage and broken deals on the divided Korean Peninsula, there is deep skepticism over Kim’s overture. Analysts warned that once the “denuclearization” talks begin, North Korea could endlessly haggle to force Washington to accept it as a nuclear power in return for a promise not to expand its weapons programs, especially its ICBM efforts.
“Ever since it was born, North Korea has never faithfully implemented any agreement,” said Yoo Dong-ryul, director of the Korea Institute for Liberal Democracy in Seoul. “By playing along with the North, South Korea is vouching for its confidence game.”