Days after former White House adviser John Bolton warned against diplomacy with North Korea, a delegation of Kim Jong Un’s top aides hustled through a Beijing airport Thursday on their way from Pyongyang to Stockholm for a new round of nuclear talks with the United States.
The prospects for a breakthrough this weekend remain fraught given the wide gulf after negotiations broke down during President Donald Trump’s second summit with Kim in February in Hanoi. But the ease and regularity with which Kim and his top aides have hopscotched the globe over the past 18 months have scrambled international consensus on how to deal with a pariah state once known as the “Hermit Kingdom.”
Kim, who had not traveled beyond North Korea’s borders since taking power in late 2011, signaled a turn to international engagement by dispatching his sister and other top aides to the Winter Olympics in Seoul in February 2018. Since then, the 35-year-old ruler has orchestrated a dramatic global coming-out party punctuated by seven trips abroad to meet with five foreign leaders, including three meetings with Trump.
The speed with which Kim has established himself as a figure of international aplomb has frustrated Bolton, the ousted national security adviser, and other hawks who contend that Trump moved too quickly to reward a brutal dictator with personal attention and normalize him on the world stage, without securing enforceable commitments to denuclearize.
Last month, Kim reportedly invited Trump to visit Pyongyang, and although Trump told reporters that such a trip is premature, there is talk of another bilateral summit by year’s end. South Korean officials are said to be weighing an offer to Kim to participate in a gathering in November of Southeast Asian leaders in Busan, South Korea.
At a Washington think tank on Monday, Bolton declared that Kim would never willingly relinquish his arsenal and suggested that the United States consider strategies to force regime change or conduct a first-strike military attack. “These are questions that need to focus our attention,” Bolton said, “not can we get another summit with Kim Jong Un.”
Trump’s allies discounted Bolton as a warmonger and countered that the president was right to reject decades of fruitless U.S. policy to isolate and punish the Kim regime. They cited reduced bilateral tensions as evidence that the president’s unorthodox approach is paying dividends, even though North Korea has unsettled its neighbors with short-range missile tests since the summer.
“I cannot understand for the life of me that the establishment in D.C. thinks it doesn’t make sense to talk to a nation’s leader in order to do diplomacy,” said Robert Spalding, a retired Air Force brigadier general who served as senior director for strategy in Trump’s National Security Council. “The diplomacy is in addition to [economic] sanctions. To the extent that it ratchets down tensions and creates the ability for continuous dialogue, who knows if that can lead over time to a softening of attitudes.”
Outside experts said there is little doubt that Kim has succeeded in his goal of gaining a measure of global legitimacy that had once been unimaginable — a valuable domestic propaganda tool for a young leader determined to consolidate power and ensure his future standing.
In addition to Trump, Kim has met abroad with China’s Xi Jinping, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong and Vietnam’s Nguyen Phu Trong — trips attended by the kind of red-carpet pageantry, local crowds and international news media attention reserved for global dignitaries.
Images of Kim being feted by his hosts have been disseminated by North Korean state media even as reports of the breakdown in nuclear negotiations have placed blame on the United States.
“He can tell his people that he met with the world’s most powerful leaders and take that propaganda and use it to justify his policies,” said Jean H. Lee, a former Associated Press reporter who served as bureau chief in Pyongyang from 2008 to 2013. “That makes it very hard to challenge him or raise any criticism and allows him to maintain very tough policies on his people.”
Despite Kim’s pledges to shift focus from North Korea’s weapons development to economic growth, the nation continues to face food shortages amid tough international sanctions, and Kim operates some of the harshest forced-labor camps in the world.
But since his sister, Kim Yo-Jong, led North Korea’s delegation to the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Games in Seoul last year, the family’s trips have been met with breathless coverage that often glosses over the regime’s brutality.
For all the viral social media focus on oddities that reflected Kim’s security paranoia — such as the body guards who jogged next to Kim’s limousine at a summit with Moon in April 2018 or the green, armored train that ferried him on a leisurely 60-hour trip to the second summit with Trump in Hanoi in February — there are juxtaposing scenes that revealed a young leader who has carefully crafted the messaging behind his charm offensive.
Kim conducted a late-evening tour of Singapore’s glittering skyline in June 2018, including stops at the 55-story Marina Bay Sands hotel and the Jubilee Bridge. He answered shouted questions from U.S. journalists in Hanoi in February and engaged a Russian state television reporter upon arriving at the Vladivostok train station in April. And he grasped hands with Trump to welcome him across the 38th parallel into North Korean territory during their hastily arranged meeting at the Korean Demilitarized Zone in June.
“Trump meeting and shaking hands made it possible for everyone else to as well,” said Katie Stallard-Blanchette, a Wilson Center fellow who worked as a television correspondent in East Asia.
White House aides have emphasized that Trump has not lifted punishing economic sanctions even as he has engaged in diplomacy with Kim. To Stallard-Blanchette, Kim’s success in reestablishing diplomatic norms has been accompanied by something perhaps more alarming — a normalization of missile tests.
Kim has maintained a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing for nearly two years, but the regime’s short-range projectile launches since the summer included a new type of submarine-based ballistic missile that landed in waters off Japan this week. Trump has not commented on that test, even as it drew objections from Tokyo and Seoul.
“If we went back 18 months and they tested a submarine missile on the eve of talks with the U.S., the next thing is the talks would be canceled,” Stallard-Blanchette said. “Now there’s really no response [from the United States]. That gives Kim a very positive sense of where the line is … He’s marching forward all the time to redefine what’s normal. That’s what’s dangerous.”