Kim Jong-un steps up diplomatic offensive

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) and South Korea's Culture, Sports and Tourism Minister Do Jong-whan (R) during a rare concert by South Korean musicians at the 1,500-seat East Pyongyang Grand Theatre in Pyongyang on April 1, 2018.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears to be expanding his diplomatic horizons in an apparent attempt to increase his bargaining power ahead of summits with the leaders of South Korea and the US.

On Sunday, Kim made an unexpected appearance with his wife Ri Sol-ju at a performance by a South Korean art troupe in Pyongyang, becoming the first North Korean leader to watch a show by South Korean musicians.

Kim was expected to watch Tuesday's joint performance, but he chose to watch Sunday's show because of his "hectic political events scheduled for early April," North Korea's state-run Korea Central News Agency reported.

On Friday, Kim met International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach in Pyongyang and thanked the IOC for its role in a dramatic thaw in inter-Korean relations. He also said he is committed to having his country participate in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and the Beijing Winter Games in 2022, according to news reports.

S Korean pop stars rock on in front of Kim Jong-un

  • Standing in front of 1,500 spectators -- including the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife -- in the East Pyongyang Grand Theater, the visiting South Korean art troupe delivered a message of peace and hope for unification through musical performance.
  • The Pyongyang concert was originally slated for 5:30 p.m., South Korean time, but was delayed for 80 minutes due to Kim’s sudden decision to attend the concert himself with his wife Ri Sol-ju. With it, he became the first North Korean leader to attend a concert by South Korean musicians.
  • Kim arrived 10 minutes before the concert started and was greeted by the South Korean delegation including Culture Minister Do Jong-hwan and musical director Yun Sang. They shared a few words as they headed to the second floor for the concert.
  • Kim shook hands with each South Korean musician and told the group that he wished for another joint concert of the Koreas in the fall in Seoul.
  • “I originally wanted to watch a concert on Tuesday, but I had other appointments so I came today,” Kim was quoted as saying by a high-ranking government official.
  • The concerts are a part of the Koreas' effort to ease tension in the peninsula. Seoul and Pyongyang are set to hold a summit on April 27, followed by the North’s talks with US on denuclearization before the end of May.
  • The emcee of the concert was a popular member of K-pop band Girls' Generation, Seohyun
  • Members of K-pop girlband "Red Velvet" pose for a photo after a rehearsal for a rare concert at the 1,500-seat East Pyongyang Grand Theatre in Pyongyang on April 1, 2018.
  • North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) speaking to South Korean musicians after a rare concert by South Korean musicians at the 1,500-seat East Pyongyang Grand Theatre in Pyongyang.
  • A man walks through the lobby of the 1,500-seat East Pyongyang Grand Theatre in Pyongyang on April 1, 2018.

Since making the offer to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in his New Year's speech, Kim has mounted a diplomatic offensive. Kim invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump for historic summits and met Chinese President Xi Jinping to mend strained ties.

All the three summits, as well as his meeting with Bach, are known to have been offered first by Kim.

It is a remarkable shift following a year of mounting tensions, accentuated by North Korea's nuclear and missile tests last year.

The young leader made his debut in international diplomacy last week when he met with Chinese President Xi during a two-day visit to China. It was his first known foreign trip as a leader since taking power six years ago.

North Korea's Kim Jong Un meets China's Xi Jinping on first foreign trip

  • North Korea's Kim Jong Un has made his first ever foreign trip as leader to meet China's president, vowing he is "committed to denuclearisation" and willing to hold summits with the South and the US.
  • The secretive visit was confirmed Wednesday by Chinese and North Korean state media which said Kim was treated to a lavish stay in a show of unity after relations were battered by Beijing's support of UN sanctions against Pyongyang.
  • Kim had not met China's President Xi Jinping since taking over after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011.
  • Analysts said Xi likely wanted to see Kim to ensure North Korea does not cut a deal with Trump that hurts Chinese interests during a summit that is expected to be held in May.
  • Beijing had appeared sidelined by Pyongyang's approaches to Seoul and Washington, but Kim's visit puts China firmly back at the centre of the diplomatic game.
  • Confirmation of the visit ended 24 hours of speculation about the identity of the North Korean visitor after Japanese media spotted a green train, similar to the one used by Kim's father, arriving in Beijing on Monday and departing the following day.
  • While Chinese officials refused to confirm Kim's presence, a heavy police presence at key venues, motorcades driven under police escort, and barricades in the city centre fuelled the belief that Kim had come to pay his respects.

Analysts saw Kim's trip to China, the North's traditional ally and biggest economic partner, as an attempt to improve strained ties with China to gain leverage before its planned summit with the US, which is seen as waging a trade war against China.

Next in line for Kim are a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27 on the South Korean side of the truce village inside the Demilitarized Zone and then a meeting with US President Trump at an undisclosed location before the end of May.

There are also speculations that Kim is considering meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Russian Foreign Ministry said that North Korea's Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho could travel to Moscow in the near future. While Russia eyes economic co-operation with North Korea to secure a path to build natural gas pipelines through the isolated country, their close bilateral ties could also work in favour of the North's interests in terms of boosting its economy and finding a balance against influence from China and the US.

Japan, which has been at the forefront of the US-led pressure campaign against North Korea, also appears to be scrambling not to be sidelined in the process of resolving the North Korean nuclear issue to make sure its interests are protected. Japanese media reported that Abe had proposed a meeting with Kim. Japan has been seeking to rescue Japanese citizens abducted and detained in North Korea.

Kim might be trying to take control of the process and increase his bargaining power ahead of the planned summits, analysts say. The North might also be seeking to break out of its isolation by making the most of the momentum of dialogue on the peninsula and preparing itself in case talks with the US fall through.

"As Kim Jong-un made nuclear and missile provocations at an unexpected pace, he is pushing for a diplomatic offensive at such an unexpectedly fast pace to improve the North's relations with neighbouring countries," said Ko Myung-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

"But it is a typical North Korean way. The only difference is that Kim Jong-un is moving quicker and on a larger scale whatever he pursues -- whether that is a provocation or diplomacy," he added. "North Korea is increasing its bargaining power to appeal for its way of denuclearization at the upcoming summit with the US."

Kim pledged that he was "committed to denuclearization" of the Korean Peninsula, according to China's Xinhua News Agency, but demanded South Korea and the US take "progressive and synchronous measures for the realisation of peace."

But skepticism lingers over Kim's diplomatic offensive, with some claiming that the North is seeking to ease sanctions against the regime and buying time to perfect its nuclear and missile programs.

The US remains adamant that it will not take any of those measures unless the reclusive regime dismantles its nuclear weapons programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.

The North's upcoming talks with the South and the US are expected to shape the fate of the Korean Peninsula. If talks succeed, Korea and the US would agree on the path to denuclearization. If they fail, they could just go back to brinkmanship and military tensions could resurface on the peninsula.


More about
Kim Jong Un