N. Korea's Kim Jong Un turns from threats to hugs in diplomatic drive

PHOTO: Reuters

From threats of war to brotherly hugs, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has emerged as a skilled diplomat with the unexpected assistance of a new player in the game: US President Donald Trump.

Kim's sudden turn to statecraft at the height of tensions is straight out of a North Korean playbook that goes back decades, analysts say, but Trump's spontaneity has allowed it to have an unprecedented impact on the field of diplomacy.

After a year of multiple missile launches that brought the US mainland within range of his rockets, and the North's largest atomic test to date, Kim declared Pyongyang's nuclear quest complete and began his overtures for negotiations.

Kim reached out to the South's dovish President Moon Jae-in in time for the Winter Olympics and later made his international debut with a surprise trip to traditional ally China to finally pay his respects to President Xi Jinping, repairing a relationship that had frayed in recent years.

He is due to hold a historic summit with Trump next week in Singapore, brokered by Moon -- the first-ever meeting between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader.

"It was premeditated," said Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

"Kim knew that if he started by fixing inter-Korean ties, it would lead to talks with the US and China would reach out."

In meetings with the South Korean and Chinese leaders, including seaside strolls and al fresco woodland tea, Kim has appeared polite and pleasant, a stark contrast to Pyongyang's previous chest-thumping.

The North Korean leader has also extended goodwill gestures to the US, releasing three American detainees and dismantling his nuclear test site, while halting missile launches for over six months.

"Kim's not just good at maximum pressure, he's also pretty good at maximum engagement," said Jung Pak, a former North Korea expert at the CIA who is now a scholar at the Brookings Institution.

He has proved "quite skilled at playing the regional players against the other", she said, and "sees Beijing as a key counterweight (and probably an insurance policy) against the United States".

Kim Jong-un first N Korean leader to cross border into South since war

  • South Korean President Moon Jae-in, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Kim's wife Ri Sol Ju and Moon's wife Kim Jung-sook attend a farewell ceremony at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018.
  • North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (2nd L) and his wife Ri Sol Ju (L) toast with South Korea's President Moon Jae-in (2nd R) and his wife Kim Jung-sook (R) during the official dinner at the end of their historic summit at the truce village of Panmunjom on April 27, 2018.
  • The leaders of North and South Korea agreed Friday to pursue a permanent peace and the complete denuclearisation of the divided peninsula, as they embraced after a historic summit laden with symbolism.
  • The leaders of North and South Korea agreed Friday to pursue a permanent peace and the complete denuclearisation of the divided peninsula, as they embraced after a historic summit laden with symbolism.
  • Upon signing the document, the two leaders shared a warm embrace, the culmination of a summit filled with smiles and displays of friendship in front of the world’s media.
  • Upon signing the document, the two leaders shared a warm embrace, the culmination of a summit filled with smiles and displays of friendship in front of the world’s media.
  • Among the many spectacles Friday's inter-Korean summit offered was the two Korea's first ladies' first-ever meeting with one another, and the seemingly instant bond they formed.
  • The two were holding hands as they left the Peace House after the dinner, and did not let go of each other's hands until they reached an outdoor property where they watched a special performance celebrating the historic summit together.
  • And the two first ladies, in spite of seeing each other for the first time, seemed to have bonded well after the spring-themed banquet event.
  • And the two first ladies, in spite of seeing each other for the first time, seemed to have bonded well after the spring-themed banquet event.
  • Kim, who is some 30 years Ri's senior, extended a warm welcome and took her to the Peace House, where the summit had been taking place since earlier in the day.
  • In the afternoon, they planted a memorial tree and watered it with water from rivers in the South and North, before walking into a small glen along the border and across the blue footbridge for their private tete-a-tete as the sun set.
  • Moon would visit Pyongyang in “the fall”, the two leaders said, also agreeing to hold “regular meetings and direct telephone conversations”.
  • After the summit, he pledged that the two Koreas will ensure they did not “repeat the unfortunate history in which past inter-Korea agreements... fizzled out after beginning”.
  • The two previous Korean summits in 2000 and 2007, both of them in Pyongyang, also ended with displays of affection and similar pledges, but the agreements ultimately came to naught.
  • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un crossed the border into South Korea for the first time on Friday. The two leaders were handed flowers by a South Korean boy and girl, residents of a village situated in the demilitarised zone.
  • Kim was greeted by the South’s president, Moon Jae-in ahead of the two Koreas’ first summit in more than a decade.
  • Kim said he felt a “swirl of emotion” as he walked the short distance to the border, wondering “why it took so long”, he told Moon later, at the beginning of their meeting.
  • The two leaders smiled and shook hands after which Kim Jong Un gestured to Moon they cross over to North Korea briefly, which they did for a few steps, then returned to the South, holding hands.
  • The two leaders smiled and shook hands after which Kim Jong Un gestured to Moon they cross over to North Korea briefly, which they did for a few steps, then returned to the South, holding hands.
  • A new period in inter-Korean history was beginning, Kim Jong Un said Friday at the opening of a summit with the South.
  • “I came here determined to send a starting signal at the threshold of a new history,” he told his host Moon Jae-in in the Demilitarized Zone, promising a “frank, serious and honest mindset”.
  • Kim wore glasses and his trademark black Mao suit, while the rest of the North Korean delegation appeared in military uniforms or Western attire.
  • Kim stopped to sign a guest book in the South’s Peace House before the two leaders met for a private discussion.
  • His message read: ""A new history begins now. At the starting point of history and the era of peace."
  • Kim escorted by his bodyguards as he makes his way to the Military Demarcation Line.
  • The two men went back to their separate sides for lunch, Kim driven in a black limousine and escorted by a dozen bodyguards in dark suits and ties jogging alongside the vehicle.
  • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the South’s President Moon Jae-in sat down at an oval table to begin their inter-Korean summit Friday, television footage showed.
  • Both leaders viewing the painting of Bukhansan at the Peace House
  • Walking on a red carpet rolled out for the two heads of state, the pair were met by a South Korean honour guard in historical costumes and playing traditional music.
  • The two are expected to talk denuclearisation and exchanges between the Koreas and also will plant a memorial tree at the border truce village of Panmunjom.

Diplomatic leverage

It is a surprising transition for a leader who had spent six years in isolation, never having left the country nor met with foreign heads of state since assuming power in 2011.

Now, Kim's diplomacy is in full gear, exchanging envoys with Washington and holding repeated summits with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts.

His approach to Beijing is a "classic example of balanced diplomacy", said Koo Kab-woo, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

Kim travelled to China for a rendezvous with Xi ahead of the landmark April inter-Korean summit in the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas.

"He's going to Washington via Beijing and Seoul," Koo said. "It's the most effective way for a small state to increase diplomatic leverage."

But it was the president of the United States who may have unknowingly provided the stage for Kim to show off his diplomatic skills.

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.

The Singapore summit is a result of Trump's spontaneity, after he accepted Kim's invitation to talk -- relayed by Seoul officials -- without consulting his aides.

When Trump issued a letter abruptly cancelling next week's summit, Moon and Kim rapidly arranged a second meeting, posing for affectionate pictures at the border, as both Seoul and Pyongyang reaffirmed the North's commitment to dialogue.

Within days, Trump had reinstated the meeting.

"It would be impossible if we didn't have the combination of Moon Jae-in, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un," Koo said. "Kim met the optimal mix."

As Kim and Trump wrestle for more leverage, analysts say Kim's carefully orchestrated diplomacy will serve as insurance against a possible resumption of US-led pressure if next week's meeting goes badly.

Beyond pledging its commitment to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula -- a diplomatic euphemism open to wide interpretation -- Pyongyang has made no public offers of concessions, while Washington is still insisting it gives up its weapons.

But even if Singapore is a failure, Kim is likely to soldier on with his charm offensive rather than immediately return to missile and nuclear tests, said Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies.

"And if that's the case, South Korea and China will be able to continue helping North Korea diplomatically."

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