After years of isolation on the global stage, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has emerged from an heir apparent who orchestrated execution of his uncle and assassination of his half-brother. He is becoming a skillful diplomat on the spotlight. The world witnesses his transformation from a spendthrift on hydrogen bomb and intercontinental ballistic missile testing to a connoisseur of political games. In due process, Trump, more than twice Kim’s 34 years of age, has called Kim “short and fat,” a “sick puppy” and a “little rocket man.” And Kim has called Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard,” all the while formulating relations with China, Russia, Syria, South Korea and the US.
In April of 2018, Kim drove a historic inter-Korean summit, following co-staging of the Winter Olympics in 2017 with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in. Pyongyang also proposed direct talks with the US, and ordered a halt to nuclear and missile tests, freed three US detainees, and blew up its nuclear testing site.
Thus, despite fiery rhetoric, brinkmanship and domestic despotism, the Trump-Kim summit is to be held on Singapore's Sentosa island on June 12, 2018. Vladimir Putin has extended an invitation for Kim to Vladivostock in September and Syria's President Assad has said he would also like to visit Pyongyang. Kim is stepping out as the delegate of a nuclear power and negotiating with world leaders from a strategic position.
This new diplomatic strategy embodies desire and necessity to strengthen and support North Korea’s economy and modernization. To focus on economy after the completion of his weapons development, Kim needed to forge new and old coalitions.
China, North Korea's main trading affiliate and US’s strategic partner, was the first country for Kim to realign. Kim’s two visits to China in May happened days before he met the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The trade talks with China’s Chairman Xi paved the way for North Korea to play US off against China and vice versa. China prefers staggered denuclearization and lift of sanctions to stabilize North Korea's economy.
Similarly, Kim used Moscow as leverage. Former North Korean spy chief Kim Yong-chol was on his way to the United States to deliver the “strangely large” letter to Trump for his “Supreme Leader.” Meanwhile, Kim welcomed the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Pyongyang. Coincidence or not, the frenemy relationship between Trump and Kim was at stake.
Syrian President Bashar-al Assad's relationship with Pyongyang is one that may also worry the US and the UN. North Korea established diplomatic relations with Syria in 1966 and sent troops and weapons to the country during the Arab-Israeli war in October 1973. Between 2012 and 2017, North Korea was reported to transport to Syria acid-resistant tiles, valves and pipes that could be used to make chemical weapons.
South Korean leader Moon has encouraged normalization of ties with North Korea via security and economic assurances, whereas Trump has recently revised his judgement of Kim, calling him “smart and gracious” and “very honorable.” Seemingly, the whole world is being hoodwinked by Kim, while skeptics maintain that he is unlikely to yield his nuclear weapons, or relieve the grip of his repressive regime. Proven to be a skilled or even beguiling statesman, Kim will hopefully phase out his own mystic masks and agenda to modernize his country and in time, become a stable, peaceful member of our global community.