The overture to the White House was a relatively logical one for the North Korean leader – if Trump says no meet then Kim looks like he held out an olive branch and the US leader looks rude; if Trump says yes then Kim gets his selfie with the President and achieves leader-equivalency and a major domestic win.
The summit – if it happens – is a win-win for Kim.
Remember he doesn’t really have to do any deals at home to secure any negotiating position or final bargain. He is, literally, the ‘Supreme Leader’: whatever he does or does not negotiate with Trump will stand back in Pyongyang and be spun in Kim’s favour.Trump, independent as he likes to think he is, has multiple constituencies that he must appease over any deal including, the Republican Party, Senate-Congress, the military, the CIA, the State Department, the media (including the section that tends towards him), and the Great American People.
Kim’s options are nothing or something: a ‘no thanks’ to anything is possible, but probably it will be something close to an offer to freeze nuclear weapons development for reduction of sanctions and/or aid both material and technical.
Trump, on the other hand, could do many things his opponents and (sometime) allies don’t like: withdraw troops from the South thus destabilising the balance of power on East Asia, expose Tokyo, annoy Beijing.
The summit is Kim’s to win and Trump’s to lose.
And so Kim went, ‘unofficially’, to Beijing and talked denuclearisation. This was the bridge rebuilding programme. The sanctions have hit Pyongyang despite the rhetoric; losing the support of Beijing at the UN was a big loss for Kim and a win for Trump and Team USA. And so, starting with the South Korean winter Olympics, then the overtures to Washington, Kim is reorienting.
It’s showing that even if Trump does shake hands with Kim at any later summit Xi got there first. That old friends are usually the best friends. That falling out with neighbours is always ugly.
Next up the just announced North-South Korea in April and Moon Jae-in’s selfie with Kim at the symbolic village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone. And then finally President Trump will get his chance … maybe.
As a leading expert on North Korea, Paul French is a widely published analyst and commentator on Asia and has written a number of books dealing with China’s pre-1949 history, Asian politics and current affairs. His previous books include a history of North Korea, a biography of Shanghai adman and adventurer Carl Crow, and a history of foreign correspondents in China. Paul was awarded the 2013 Edgar for best fact crime for his international best-seller Midnight in Peking.