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What Does Kim Jong-un Want?

A baffling reversal by the North Korean dictator

Kim Jong-un stunned the world with a message to President Trump that said he is "committed to denuclearization", will "refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests", understands that the joint military exercises conducted by South Korea and the United States "must continue", and is eager to meet President Trump "as soon as possible".

The words are of South Korea’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, who flew to Washington immediately after meeting with Kim Jong-un to present
them to President Trump, and are presumably a carefully accurate representation of what Mr. Kim offered.

The turnabout came after a year of the two leaders hurling threats and insults at each other, backed up by North Korea's nuclear tests that appear to have graduated from fission to fusion and missiles that can now reach across the U.S., and by Trump's ever-tightening of sanctions, blacklisting of collaborator companies, and warnings that "we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea" with "fire and fury the likes of which this world has never seen before". It was "Rocket Man man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime" versus "I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire" as the two of them walked the brink for months.

Trump's threats, and his frightening ignorance of how unimaginably catastrophic a nuclear war would be ("If we have them, why can't we use them?"), may have worked to make a believer of Kim. While equally impetuous and combustible, he may at least have realized that Trump just might press the bigger button on his desk and that he, Kim, would lose his life and country in a nuclear exchange.

One phrase in the message is striking, although we've seen it go unnoticed in the media — that Kim is eager to meet President Trump "as soon as possible". Diplomacy usually takes its time, and certainly so will these talks if they go forward, but what does the startling capitulation dangled in the offer and the rush to get started reveal? Does this possibly say that the sanctions are not just hurting, but that their severity may have brought about rumblings that have the 33-year old Kim worried about what matters most to him: holding power and his regime.

Instead, quite a bit of the analysis on the political talk shows dwelled on North Korea's desire for legitimacy on the world stage as a motive for the North Korean leader to extend an olive branch. That it will be a coup for his small, rogue country and his young self to have summoned no less than the president of the United States to a meeting and he would soon be seen standing side-by-side with "the most powerful man in the world". We'll pass of that one. Kim Jong-un seems far more canny.

And that's what worries those who think Mr. Trump has agreed to meet too easily. He rushed to bring us the news, poking into the White House briefing room late in the day to alert reporters that something big was about to happen, and then had South Korean envoy Chung read his message to reporters in the dark of the White House driveway rather than wait until the next day. Commentators could be forgiven for wondering if the haste was to change the subject from the furor over tariffs and the Stormy Daniels imbroglio — the "look over here" redirection that the president has employed repeatedly.

Trump had talked to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, traveling in Africa, but apparently did not tell him that he would immediately accept the North Korean invitation. This was the same day he went ahead with tariffs that will hurt allies such as Japan, doubly offended by Trump's calling Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to broach the news with no prior consultation. Ditto China's Xi Jinping, although Trump could tweet afterward, “President XI told me he appreciates that the U.S. is working to solve the problem diplomatically rather than going with the ominous alternative”.

Given the history with North Korea — of Kim's father and grandfather using prolonged talks to develop their nuclear program in secret, of cheating, of broken deals — it would be unwise to expect too much from the meeting between the two.

If the meeting proceeds, Kim Jong-un's demands will come tumbling out, probably far in excess of what the U.S. should agree to — the end of the joint military exercises, the removal of U.S. troops from the south, etc. — and Trump could find himself embarrassed for having been drawn in. Beijing or Seoul have been proposed for the meeting, but since appearances matter, the president might at least be better advised to make Kim come to him by siting the meeting in the West.

The other concern is that Mr. Trump may give away too much. He surely wants to be rid of the North Korean problem and may well be tempted to do so. Paramount for Mr. Kim will be the removal of sanctions. Trouble is, they can be lifted comparatively overnight, but the quid pro quo of denuclearization and verification is a long process which could easily degenerate into disputes, violations, and the deal's collapse. That would happened on after the sanctions are long gone. It would be the perfect scenario for Kim, following the family tradition.

2 Comments for “What Does Kim Jong-un Want?”

  1. I have yet to see the positive ‘acumen’ of Mr. Trump on most issues? Yet he has nurtured the notion that, he is the consummate negotiator. I wonder to whom the benefit of the negotiation should annure?


    You are far too dismissive of Trump. There is very little, actually no chance that he will give too much away. On the other hand, a relative neophyte, like Kim, will likely be intimidated by Trump’s strong personality and the power he wields as leader of the free world. The man who correctly described the Iran nuclear agreements as a negotiating disaster is not going to repeat Obama’s amateurish performance.

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