North Korea’s Kim Jong-un rewrites the book on the art of the deal with shrewd handling of Donald Trump in Singapore
Kim shows poise and diplomatic flourish to walk away with a win on one of the biggest points of contention
For a 34-year-old who made his first state visit in just the last few months, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seemed to hold his own in Tuesday’s high-profile summit setting with US President Donald Trump.
Kim had already surprised many observers with shrewd strategic manoeuvring before the talks and the Singapore summit only burnished that reputation.
In the face of Trump’s well-honed, reality-TV style and reputation as an unpredictable diplomatic opponent, the North Korean leader avoided the inclusion of CVID – or complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation – in the summit’s joint statement – all without appearing confrontational.
Instead, he and the US president signed a relatively vague statement agreeing to “work towards complete denuclearisation”.
“It must have been at Kim’s insistence to not [include] CVID,” a senior South Korean official said, saying any reference to the term would have subjected Pyongyang to much tighter scrutiny.
CVID was among the biggest points of contention in pre-summit negotiations between Sung Kim, the US ambassador to the Philippines and former envoy to South Korea, and North Korea’s Vice-Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui. Their marathon meetings on Monday ended only when Washington yielded to Pyongyang and agreed to leave the term out.
Kim has always insisted on a “phased and synchronous” – or “action-for-action” – approach to giving up his nuclear weapons. This would involve the international community compensating Pyongyang for every step it takes on the road to abandoning the programme, rather than waiting until after complete denuclearisation to give North Korea economic rewards.
Observers said Kim, who had earlier been written off by many critics as a “lunatic”, had showed himself to be a rational and disciplined negotiator.
That performance was all the more surprising for a leader who, before this week, had encountered just one other world leader – Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom Kim met on two surprise visits to China this year. One diplomatic source said Xi might have given Kim some tips on how best to conduct a meeting with Trump.
Kim’s first point of public contact with Trump came at about 9am as the North Korean leader walked into the meeting room at a slow, measured pace and wearing a fixed grin.
He shook hands with the American president who has a reputation for aggressive handshakes that are thought to be a show of dominance.
Kim did not appear nervous as he held the grip and nodded a few times during the greeting. He also tried not to avoid eye contact with Trump, who is about twice his age and 20cm taller. The younger man even patted Trump’s arm, a subtle gesture to suggest he was the president’s equal, and had the confidence to greet Trump in English.
“Nice to meet you, Mr President,” said Kim, who spent a number of years in Switzerland before taking the reins of North Korean politics.
A South Korean lawmaker with the ruling Democratic Party of Korea said Kim’s initial performance appeared rehearsed.
“It looks like Kim has been coached and might have even practised for this moment,” the lawmaker said, adding Kim’s only fault was showing a hint of anxiety towards the end.
The Singapore summit and its lead-up have been the young leader’s coming of age, giving him experience in dealing with Trump and Xi, the world’s two most powerful men.
In addition to his one-on-one with Trump, Kim also impressed observers in “four-by-four” talks, enlisting former spy chief Kim Yong-chol, Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and vice-chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea Ri Su-yong for discussions.
Trump was joined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and the notoriously hawkish national security adviser John Bolton.
Kim capped with day with statecraft, expressing his “gratitude” to Trump, just like any leader of a “normal state”.
“We are signing a document where we get to move on from the past and mark a new start at this historic meeting,” Kim said before the signing off on the day’s agreement.
This is not the first time Kim has showed his fluency of diplomatic language. He first impressed with his historic meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the border village of Panmunjom in April.
At the meeting, Kim “offered to visit the official residence” of the South Korean president in Seoul – a small gesture and a nod to tradition that helped to break ice and changed the public’s impression of him as a young, maniacal power-hungry leader.
Kim also tried to win over the public in Singapore, taking a surprising break from his intense preparations for night tour of the city.
He and his entourage visited the Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino, ascending to the 57th floor for a bird’s-eye view of the nightscape.
Smiling to the cameras and waving to the media and tourists, Kim appeared friendly and relaxed, prompting the crowd to smile and wave back.
Michael Kovrig, a senior adviser for North East Asia at International Crisis Group, said the sightseeing was “unusual for a North Korean leader” and Kim used it well to set a tone of reconciliation and diplomacy.
“I think Kim wanted to win the hearts [of people] and draw some sympathy for himself and his regime, as part of an effort to weaken resolve to maintain sanctions and pressure,” Kovrig said.
“Kim may be sincere about wanting to rejoin the community of nations and develop his country’s economy.”
Other analysts said it was still too early to judge whether Kim really had what it took to succeed in leading North Korea into the international community as a normal state.