Art of the Deal: Is Kim Jong Un Beating Trump at His Own Game?

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Illustration by Nigel Buchanan for Newsweek

In early 2012, a few months after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was buried in an elaborate state ­funeral, I found myself in the Pyongyang office of a man named James Kim. He’s an evangelical Christian, a veteran of the Korean War and a former political prisoner in North Korea. He is also the founder of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which is how he met Kim Jong Il. As we spoke, James talked about attending the funeral and how he encountered the Dear Leader’s son, a portly 29-year-old named Kim Jong Un.

Back then, the conventional view was that the young Kim was too inexperienced to maintain a tight grip on power like his father and grandfather before him. He’d attended junior high school in Switzerland, loved to play basketball and was a huge fan of Michael Jordan—strands of normality that some latched on to, perhaps hoping this Kim would be different. Could he possibly open up the economy and give his people a whiff of the prosperity their neighbors enjoyed? Could he persuade his generals to slow their relentless race to a nuclear bomb, which so alarmed the outside world?

Sitting in his office on the university campus, James thought this notion was naïve. The young leader would nominally be in charge, if only to keep the Kim dynasty intact. But others would really be running the country, starting with Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, a powerful official close to the Chinese. As for Kim, James said, he “is just a boy. He’s soft.”

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James knew the Kim family well, but he was wrong about the young leader. We all were. Kim quickly assumed control of North Korea, ramped up its nuclear weapons program and dispatched his perceived enemies, from Jang (shot by firing squad in 2013) to his half-brother, killed with a VX nerve agent in Kuala Lumpur in 2017. Suddenly, Western observers who once considered Kim a naïf now saw him as a madman.

Six years into his rule, the perception of Kim is changing again. Radically. Foreigners who have dealt with him say he is ­­engaged with the issues confronting his country. Thomas Bach, the German head of the International Olympic Committee, ­recently met with Kim after the 2018 Winter Games. He found their discussion about the event “straightforward” and “fruitful,” adding that Kim asked “detailed questions” and seemed “well informed.” And now, not long after a historic, face-to-face meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in late April, optimists in Seoul believe he may be prepared to make a landmark agreement with a neophyte American president that would denuclearize the Korean Peninsula in return for diplomatic and security guarantees. Kim, many seem to think, is not only rational but also a skilled negotiator who may be willing to make a deal.

FE_Kim_11_956743948 U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk down the stairs with U.S. detainees Tony Kim, Kim Dong-chul and Kim Hak-song after they were released by North Korea, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on May 10. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

Burned by past North Korean promises, skeptics in Washington don’t believe it. But Trump, says one national security aide, will go to the summit in Singapore on June 12—the first ever between a North Korean leader and a U.S. president—“with an open mind and ready to listen very, very carefully.” (Like others interviewed for this story, he spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press.)

The sequence of events has been stunning, especially to North Korea’s closest ally, China, diplomatic sources in Seoul say. Until this year, Pyongyang and the U.S. seemed set to collide. Kim had persisted “tenaciously” with his nuclear program, North Korea watchers in Seoul say, in part because he feared the previous South Korean government wanted to see his regime vanquished.

North Korea now has an estimated 30 nukes, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, and it is close to being able to fit a bomb on long-range missiles capable of striking the U.S. Pyongyang ­never reacted favorably to entreaties from Barack Obama. In fact, Kim so exasperated the previous administration that it effec­tively gave up dealing with North Korea, a non-policy it would call “strategic patience.” That patience turned into an emerging crisis, one that Trump inherited: In Obama’s one meeting with his successor after the 2016 election, he informed Trump that North Korea would be his biggest foreign policy problem.

FE_Kim_05_845050840 North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, behind him, attend an art performance dedicated to nuclear scientists and technicians who worked on a hydrogen bomb that the regime claimed to have successfully tested, at the People's Theatre in Pyongyang. STR/AFP/Gett

The U.S.—and the world—responded by tightening ­economic sanctions even further; China, to the surprise of many, made a greater effort to rein in its trade with Pyongyang. Trump publicly belittled Kim, calling him “Rocket Man” in not just tweets but a speech at the United Nations. He threatened “fire and fury,” while Kim called Trump a “dotard.” For a while last year, the administration even mused about a “bloody nose” strategy toward the North—a limited strike designed to show Kim the U.S. was serious about getting rid of Pyongyang’s nukes. The ­unthinkable—another war on the Korean Peninsula, a conflict that some estimated could leave millions dead—suddenly seemed plausible.

Kim again defied expectations. With the nuclear crisis looming, he used an opportune moment—the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, which included a delegation of athletes from the North—to propose a summit with Moon and deliver a startling invitation, via the South Koreans, to Trump: Let’s sit down and talk.

A debate among pundits in Washington and Seoul immediately ensued—and it continues today. Was Kim operating from a position of strength? Was he going to swagger to the table with his nukes and try to get the U.S. to cut an arms-control deal? Or had the new sanctions really begun to bite?

FE_Kim_06_916930638 South Korean President Moon Jae-in, second from left, talks with North Korean nominal head of state Kim Yong Nam and Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un, during a performance of North Korea's Samjiyon Orchestra at National Theater in Seoul in February. South Korean Presidential Blue House/Getty

South Korean and U.S. policymakers believe a little of both are at work. “The sanctions certainly played a role,” says Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute, a Seoul think tank. “North Korea was at a crossroads, and the economic pain is real.” But sanctions, he and others interviewed by Newsweek say, weren’t the entire story. South Korean officials close to Moon knew Kim was under growing economic pressure, but they believed he felt his nuclear buildup had secured his regime. At the Olympics meeting, Moon wanted to see if the North Korean leader had a pragmatic streak

The South Korean government delivered a message to Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, who led Pyongyang’s delegation: In ­return for negotiations on his nuclear and missile program, Seoul would drop all sanctions, restart economic programs related to tourism and light manufacturing in the North, and move, along with the United States, toward normal relations. Kim’s sister responded favorably and then surprised her hosts with the proposal from her brother to meet Trump. Up for discussion: the nuke program and the establishment of diplomatic relations ­between nations that had never signed a peace treaty. “Our sense,” says a senior South Korean diplomat, “was that Kim had made a strategic decision: In return for security guarantees, he wants to move toward economic reform and eventual prosperity.”

It’s not entirely clear if Kim knew the New York real estate mogul would take him up on the deal. Trump’s national security advisers were wary of walking into a trap. But the desire to do something no other president has done—meet one-on-one with a North Korean leader—was not something Trump could resist. He immediately accepted the invitation.

FE_Kim_07_842497722 South Korea's Hyunmoo II ballistic missile is fired during an exercise in South Korea, as part of a live-fire exercise simulating an attack on North Korea's nuclear test site. South Korea Defense Ministry/NUR/Getty

Trump has publicly said that for the summit to be successful, Kim has to “give up his nukes, all of them.” Inside the admin­istration, officials are beginning to be more specific. Led by über-hawk John Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser, they want the president to insist on complete, verifiable and “irreversible” dismantlement of its nuclear and missile programs. That means getting rid of the bombs that exist, as well as the means to produce them and their potential delivery systems.

The South Koreans believe Kim sincerely wants to denuclearize the peninsula. They may be right. Over Easter weekend, then–CIA Director Mike Pompeo, now secretary of state, flew to Pyongyang for a secret meeting with the North Korean leader. While he was there, Kim agreed he would not ask for the withdrawal of the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. Those troops participate in large-scale joint military exercises with Seoul every year—exercises the North has long condemned.

A willingness to accept U.S. troops on the peninsula does represent a change in policy and indicates Kim might have a firmer grip on reality than either his father or his grandfather did. “Those troops ­aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and he’s ­already shown us that he understands that,” says the senior South Korean diplomat. “The two leaders won’t have to waste much time on that subject when they meet.”

So what, specifically, does Kim want? According to sources in Seoul, at the summit with Trump, Kim will set goals for follow-up negotiations: a peace treaty with the U.S. to formally end the ­Korean War, a nonaggression pact and the start of normal diplomatic relations with Washington, of the sort Obama commenced with Cuba in 2015. He also wants the U.S. and South ­Korea to tone down—but not necessarily eliminate—their annual military ­exercises, which are aimed at convincing Pyongyang just how much firepower the allies could muster should they ever be attacked. South Korean officials say the North is unlikely to ­demand significant economic assistance upfront beyond the elimination of sanctions; once they disappear, Kim believes significant foreign investment will follow.

05_10_Pompeo_Kim North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on May 9 in Pyongyang. KCNA/via Reuters

What is striking about those demands—if they turn out to be accurate—is “they are minimal,” as Cheong puts it, compared to what North Korea has asked for in past negotiations with the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Trump is likely amenable to these demands. As a candidate and later as commander in chief, he has openly wondered why the U.S. bothers defending South Korea while at the same time running a significant bilateral trade deficit with Seoul. While there are straightforward answers to the question—the presence of U.S. troops provide a powerful deterrent to any North Korean attack and thus reassure stability in northeast Asia—it reveals the president’s instinctive isolationism. Either way, Kim has dealt with the troop withdrawal issue in advance.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang’s release of three American hostages in May has created a somewhat favorable mood as the summit approaches, as did its announcement days later that it would destroy its principal nuclear testing sites in northeastern North Korea—although two of them may have been significantly damaged the last time ­Pyongyang tested a bomb.

Still, Kim’s decision to stop his nuclear testing and start talking gets him only so far in Washington. The level of mistrust for the North Koreans, given their perceived track record on past ­nuclear agreements, is high. On May 16, Kim seemed to justify the skeptics’ suspicions, suddenly saying that the U.S.-South Korea military exercises already underway were unacceptable, even though he had told the Seoul weeks before he wouldn’t object to them. Pyongyang then said if the U.S. insists on “unilateral denuclearization” then Kim might walk away from the summit

The Trump administration is already insisting on complete denuclearization, and Bolton, Trump's NSC adviser, recently insisted that Kim give up all of Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction (chemical and biological), not just its nukes. Seoul, however, worries it might be a nonstarter for a regime that feels such weapons keep it in power. “Without them, North Korea will feel like it’s fully disarmed,” says a South Korean official.

FE_Kim_03_136047230 Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il appear on a giant fresco in Pyongyang in 2010. Eric LAFFORGUE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

Some North Korea watchers in Seoul say the U.S. should ­accept “95 percent dismantlement,” as Cheong puts it. “That’s tantamount to denuclearization.” It would be a safety blanket for the regime, “which should be acceptable if a peace treaty and a nonaggression pact are signed and the [U.S.] troops stay in place.”

Should Kim order a significant reduction in his nuclear program—and in overall tensions with the outside world—he would likely get it. Unlike six years ago, there’s no doubt who now is in charge in Pyongyang. “Whatever decision the supreme leader makes has to be fully upheld and applied,” says Cheong. And anyone who doesn’t obey, he says, would be “in big trouble.” The generals now know Kim Jong Un isn’t soft. If they need a reminder, they can visit his uncle Jang’s grave.

With Sofia Lotto Persio in London.​

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