Kim Jong Unís Newfound Strength Presents Pitfalls for Trump

 Paul D. Shinkman

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un enters a season of goodwill with a newfound sense of power abroad and security at home, experts say, ahead of a planned summit with his South Korean counterpart, intentions for another summit with President Donald Trump and opportunities to warm relations with regional allies after an almost unprecedented era of tension.

The fact that Kim for the first time since assuming power traveled outside his homeland – with his family no less – signals that he no longer fears not being able to re-enter North Korea or that another senior official may try to seize power in his absence. Analysts considered these the key reasons why the young leader had isolated himself and not followed his father's and grandfather's habits of relatively frequent international travel. Kim's warm reception by Chinese leader Xi Jinping demonstrates a restoration of a relationship that had soured in recent months over Beijing's support for international sanctions punishing Pyongyang for its nuclear weapons program.

But the sense of confidence that allowed Kim to secure these diplomatic opportunities also creates a dangerous situation for the West and its allies. It's possible the upcoming summits will produce nothing, and yet Kim will have achieved success.

"At the very minimum, North Korea has demonstrated to its domestic public that it is capable of getting great powers to meet with its leaders and it can protect the image of Kim Jong Un as this charismatic leader and statesman," says Mintaro Oba, who until 2016 served in the U.S. Department of State's Office of Korean Affairs. "It's a combination of shoring up Kim Jong Un's power with his people and shoring up his power with North Korean elites."

Among Kim's hardline tactics early in his administration was the 2013 execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek, who married Kim Il Sung's only daughter and was seen as one of the most influential voices in the regime.

Kim's subsequent emphasis on developing and testing nuclear weapons and the intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver them to American shores likely gave him some leverage in international negotiations. And his latest meeting with Xi indicates that North Korea's historic patron in Beijing may once again fight to protect it.

"Kim's treatment as an equal by Xi raises his stature and furthers his strategy of using North Korea's nuclear arsenal to elevate both himself and his country on the international stage," writes Victor Cha, who until January was Trump's pick for South Korean ambassador, in an analysis for the Center for Strategic and International Studies where he is Korea chair. "Kim likely hopes the upcoming meeting with Trump will further play into this narrative, allowing Kim to claim that his nuclear forces have won North Korea respect."

North Korea would also consider it a victory if it came out of the summit with the U.S. looking like it had been the one acting in good faith, that it was a booster of peace and that the burden of behavior was on the United States and not on North Korea, Oba says.

Much has been made of the fact that Trump has not yet attached conditions or expectations to the potential summit, to take place before the end of May and brokered by South Korea. The preparations for the meeting – which would usually require intense work by the State Department and other diplomatic advisers – could also be undermined by Trump's recent appointment of national security advisor John Bolton, who has stated a hardline approach against North Korea, including pre-emptive military strikes and regime change. If Trump follows Bolton's previously stated positions, the talks could collapse.

Trump equally should avoid the pitfalls that have plagued prior negotiations with North Korea, Oba says, including its proposals for items on which the U.S. can't deliver, like the full cancellation of regular U.S. military exercises with ally South Korea. Instead, small signs of good faith – such as the creation of new diplomatic channels or a humanitarian gesture like releasing political prisoners – could help the talks become an outward success.

"It's really important for President Trump to come to the table with some sort of idea for how the summit can be the beginning of a diplomatic process," he says. "The most important thing is to figure out some sort of framework for more substantive talks following the summit."

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