With the inter-Korean summit in the books and more summits on the horizon, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un certainly seems to be enjoying his time in the global spotlight. By setting his facial expression status to grin, giggling with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and bringing a treat that set off a social media firestorm in Seoul, he has made a productive start on the long road to humanization in the eyes of the international community.
To be sure, the smiling, giggling Kim Jong Un at the summit was still the same Kim Jong Un that was firing missiles over Japan and threatening the United States with nukes just last year, and is still running one of the world’s most repressive states. However, public image is crucial in diplomacy, and the inter-Korean summit/grin-fest helped his cause for future interactions. In South Korea, the latest polls reported that 78% of South Koreans trust Kim Jong Un, a sharp uptick from 10% that approved Kim in March. Above all, Kim’s behavior essentially threw down the public relations gauntlet to American president Donald Trump.
As of now, President Trump is slow on the draw and playing without a full deck. Mike Pompeo, the new Secretary of State, did meet with Kim Jong Un in secret while still Director of the CIA, but the rest of the State Department remains mostly hollow. After a long wait, South Korea may finally get its American ambassador in Harry Harris, but just weeks before the summit, it will be difficult for him to play any significant role with the government in Seoul. Trump also famously does not like to read intelligence briefings and stated himself that he is not too keen on preparation. The United States may have the most advanced intelligence gathering apparatus in the world, but the effectiveness of information depends entirely on how the leader chooses to use it (or not). This is hardly the ideal situation for someone dealing with an adversary who will come very well prepared.
Obviously, plenty of backchannel discussions have been taking place at all levels of government. The day after the inter-Korea summit, President Moon spoke with President Trump on the phone for about 75 minutes. However, allies they may be, South Korea and the United States have different goals and approaches towards North Korea, and neither the tree planting nor the cold noodles make Kim smile more than a fissure in the US-South Korea relationship.
Unlike Trump, who does not have the best relationship with the American media establishment, Kim directly controls every single thing the North Korean people see and hear (although there are cracks in the facade). Nevertheless, Trump will have to match Kim’s charisma when the cameras are rolling at their meeting. Is he up to the task? Maybe. Trump has been president for little over a year, but he has been an entertainer for decades. Can the two leaders come off endearing after exchanging insults, threats, and nuclear button measuring contests? Last fall, Donald Trump told the United Nations General Assembly that the United States could “totally destroy” North Korea, a few weeks after his famous “fire and fury” quote. These antics have not helped his popularity abroad, reflected in the latest polls. Trump’s unpopularity came to a head last year when the British public more or less prevented him from making a state visit: a significant development given the Special Relationship between the two countries. If Trump makes any misstep, and the summit takes a wrong turn, the United States will come off as an imperial bully, antagonizing a small, poor nation an ocean away. Any move that results in sympathy for Pyongyang will be a big blow to the US grand strategy.
The world should want the summit to go well, but without any similar events from the past to draw on, it is hard to make detailed predictions. One can only hope President Trump matches Kim Jong Un’s detailed diplomacy in 2018 as well as he matched Kim’s antagonism in 2017.