Kim Jong Un became a regional power overnight by saying a single, meaningless word to Trump

Kim Jong Un inspecting a potato-flour factory in North Korea.

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Kim Jong Un inspecting a potato-flour factory in North Korea.
source
Reuters/KCNA

  • President Donald Trump accepted Kim Jong Un’s offer to meet for talks, a decision that has seen Kim’s international prestige skyrocket.
  • China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia all now want closer relations with Pyongyang, because Kim piqued Trump’s interest by saying “denuclearization.”
  • But denuclearization means something very different to Kim than to the outside world, and it may never come to pass.
  • Meanwhile, he’s already reaped the benefits.

When President Donald Trump accepted the offer to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a move taken without consulting the State Department, he made Kim into the most wanted man in Asia.

This move, ultimately, could be the US’s undoing in the Pacific.

Since then, China has buried considerable ill feelings toward Kim and had him over for a lavish summit with its president, Xi Jinping.

On Thursday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in confirmed he would meet with Kim on April 27 in the demilitarized zone. Now the leaders of Japan and Russia want to sit down with Kim too.

Kim’s diplomatic coming out, which began amid South Korea’s Winter Olympics, follows a year of furious missile testing and what the US believes was a thermonuclear detonation in North Korea.

In November, Pyongyang declared its intercontinental ballistic missile program complete, signaling it believes it has missiles that can reliably target the US.

In that light, Kim’s planned tour of powers in the Pacific looks less like a cowed weakling begging for sanctions relief and more like the crowning of a new regional power.

The magic word

Kim Jong-un North Korea nuclear bomb

source
KCNA via REUTERS

Kim achieved an exponential leap in international recognition with a simple word: denuclearization.

Cleverly, North Korea has couched talk of dismantling its nukes under a mountain of caveats but makes sure to reiterate the word in each new meeting.

The US has always kept denuclearization as a precondition for talking with North Korea. But that word can be interpreted differently on either side of the Pacific, making it an arbitrary barrier.

When North Korea talks of denuclearization, it says it’s possible if the US ends its “hostile policy” toward North Korea. That includes sanctions, military exercises, and the stationing of US forces near its border with South Korea. All three of those activities are legal and welcomed by South Korea. Kim’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs are not.

It’s unclear whether the US could accept the conditions set forth by North Korea, but Kim has already reaped the benefits.

By saying the magic word, Kim passed Trump’s thresholds for talks, and Trump accepted. Because Trump accepted the talks, China, possibly fearing it would be sidelined, set up its own talks.

Because Japan fears the US may simply negotiate away North Korea’s long-range missiles, leaving Japan still vulnerable to the shorter-range missiles, it now wants talks too.

In that way, Kim has promised little and gained much.

North Korea has a gross domestic product smaller than Malta’s. Its military, without nuclear weapons behind it, is dated and second-rate. But with nuclear weapons in his pocket, Kim now has the world hanging on his every word.