No matter what else comes of it, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has scored a huge win with President Trump’s agreement to sit down for a face-to-face meeting.
For decades, North Korean officials have angled to meet with a high-level U.S. representative using all measures of persuasion, whining, wheedling, threatening and even hostage-taking. To secure a chance at that meeting with a sitting U.S. president, no less, amounts to success beyond their wildest dreams.
From a propaganda standpoint, getting into the same room with Donald Trump would elevate the 34-year-old Kim, a pariah and terrorist in the eyes of much of the world, to the status of a world leader.
“This has been North Korea’s long-standing objective to get the president of the United States to come,’’ said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They just got lucky with Trump. They have been monitoring him very closely. They saw him as a window of opportunity with a personality that likes to grab attention.’’
Proud and isolated, jealous of their capitalist cousin, South Korea, North Koreans have long yearned to be treated as a great power. Their nuclear program has been motivated not only by their desire to protect their system of government but by their hunger for respect on the world stage, analysts say.
Trump’s agreement announced Thursday to sit down with Kim is being compared by some observers to President Nixon’s meeting with China’s Mao Tse-tung in 1972, which is flattering to North Korea.
“The North Koreans have always been waiting for the United States to treat them like China. The U.S. decision to improve relations with China showed China’s centrality,’’ said Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations. “They want to matter strategically.’’
The Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice, not a treaty, and the United States has never had formal diplomatic relations with the Communist country. No sitting American president has met with a North Korean leader. But it was an ex-president, Jimmy Carter, who negotiated a 1994 pact known as the Agreed Framework that was going to provide energy assistance for North Korea in return for gradual denuclearization.
In October 2000, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Il, father of the current leader. The expectation was that her meeting would pave the way for a follow-up trip by President Clinton to take place after the November election but before the inauguration of a new president. The momentum was lost amid the confusion about hanging chads and eventually the presidency of George W. Bush.
As a scant consolation prize to the North Koreans, Clinton did visit North Korea as an ex-president in 2009 to secure the release of American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who had been taken prisoner while reporting on the China-North Korea border. The North Koreans have used other arrested Americans effectively as hostages, trying to elicit visits and engagement from powerful Americans.
Under the Bush administration, the Agreed Framework collapsed. The North Koreans reached out repeatedly to get a meeting with Bush. They failed to get any high-level negotiations going with the United States and were frustrated that the nuclear issue was relegated to six-nation talks led by China.
Although Kim’s invitation to Trump and Trump’s acceptance of the talks without preconditions came as a shock to much of the world — dominating headlines amid the Russia investigation and Trump’s alleged tangles with porn actress Stormy Daniels — North Korea has been laying the groundwork for Trump from the moment he was elected.
“Kim Jong Un is not some young, callow kid. He is a very shrewd character,” said Robert Carlin, a former CIA analyst and negotiator, now a visiting scholar at Stanford University. “I think the North Koreans have been on this course for months and months.”
With its Fourth of July test of an intercontinental missile capable of reaching the continental United States, and its powerful hydrogen bomb test in September, North Korea succeeded in getting Washington’s attention. Then in November, when Kim announced the country had completed the development of its nuclear arsenal, he signaled that he was ready to launch a new phase that included negotiations.
The decision to participate in South Korea’s Winter Olympics effectively co-opted Seoul — a traditional U.S. ally — in the role of an intermediary with its own prestige on the line to make the talks succeed.
As though anticipating a diplomatic breakthrough, North Korea in 2016 named a seasoned negotiator, Ri Yong Ho, as foreign minister and just two weeks ago promoted another, Choe Son Hui, to a vice ministerial position. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has been losing its experienced hands, most notably with the recent retirement of the State Department’s top Korea specialist, Joseph Yun.
To the many North Korean analysts who were wringing their hands over a potentially catastrophic war, if not a nuclear Armageddon, the potential talks come as a relief. But any relief is balanced by the worry that Trump, inexperienced in diplomacy and anxious for a foreign policy win, will be no match for the surprisingly wily North Koreans.
"I think it is really dangerous," said John Park, a North Korea specialist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
"It is one thing thinking you have a minefield map, and another to sprint through," he added. If the meeting goes badly, both leaders could give up on diplomacy and "focus on more of the military options."
Some specialists on North Korea hailed the proposed summit as the first opportunity the United States will have to meet with the only person in that country who is capable of making a decision.
“We have gotten ourselves into a box and the only way out is negotiations,’’ said Leon V. Sigal, a North Korea specialist who has participated in back-channel talks with the North Koreans. Based on those talks, he says he believes “the North Koreans are looking for a fundamental change in the nature of the relationship with the United States.’’
Meanwhile, the White House spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, offered a tougher line Friday than she had a day earlier and suggested the summit might not actually happen.
“We're not going to have this meeting take place until we see concrete actions that match the words and the rhetoric of North Korea,” Sanders told reporters. "We've accepted the invitation to talk based on them following through with concrete actions on the promises that they've made."
Those include, she said, a promise to "denuclearize," to stop nuclear and missile tests, and to accept U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
North Korea’s 25 million people remain among the poorest and most isolated in Asia.
Kim, who took over in 2011 after the death of his father, has embraced a strategy he calls byungjin, Korean for parallel, of developing nuclear weapons at the same time as building the economy. Although Kim has succeeded in improving the economy by allowing more market activity, he has been limited by economic sanctions and the lack of access to international financial institutions.
Kim has agreed to freeze further nuclear and missile tests while talks are underway, but he hasn’t offered to eliminate his nuclear weapons program, which he has referred to as a “treasured sword.’’
In repeated statements, the North Koreans have said they would give up their nuclear weapons only if the United States drops its “hostile policy” toward the country, which could include a demand for the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops from South Korea. Moreover, North Korea’s nuclear program today is sufficiently advanced that even a freeze would leave the country with enough plutonium to make 10 nuclear warheads.
So far it is unclear where the proposed meeting between Trump and Kim would take place. One possibility would be for Trump to join with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a summit scheduled for late April in Panmunjom, the truce village located at the demilitarized zone separating the Koreas.
Beijing also has been floated as a possible summit site, given how Trump repeatedly has praised China's help pressuring Kim. But Kim has resented that pressure and may not want to elevate China's importance in the relationship.
Joshua Stanton, an attorney who helped draft the North Korean sanctions law, says that by all means Trump must avoid a trip to Pyongyang.
“That would show that Kim Jong Un is controlling the event and dictating terms to the president of the United States,’’ Stanton said.