More than six years after assuming power, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has yet to complete one of the defining rituals of a world leader: hosting another head of state or being welcomed by one on an official visit abroad.
That may change soon.
South Korean and U.S. officials said Thursday that U.S. President Donald Trump has agreed to meet with Kim by May to negotiate an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. No American president has ever met with a North Korean leader.
And Tuesday, South Korea’s presidential office said the two countries had agreed to hold a summit next month at a truce village inside the Demilitarized Zone that divides their countries. And they plan to do so on the South’s side of the village — a first.
Kim’s meeting this week with a high-level delegation from Seoul to hash out his proposal for a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in points to savvy political maneuvering and possibly to a broader attempt by Kim to step more firmly out from the shadows of his predecessors as North Korea’s undisputed supreme leader.
Kim already seems to be perfecting the optics of what he hopes will be ahead.
While the South Koreans were in Pyongyang, Kim seemed to cherish a role he rarely gets to take: that of a magnanimous head of state welcoming important foreign guests. North Korea’s state-run media made a point of portraying him as a confident statesman, holding court over a lavish dinner, beaming with satisfaction during group photos and congratulating South Korea for successfully staging the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
That is quite a dramatic departure from the predominant images of 2017: Kim surrounded by his generals celebrating their latest missile launch.
The North-South summit itself isn’t without precedent. Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, met his South Korean counterparts in 2000 and 2007. Both summits were held in Pyongyang, however.
To show just how important such a meeting is to him, Kim sent his younger sister to make the pitch directly to Moon last month when she attended the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Her visit marked the first time a member of the Kim family had ever crossed the border.
Make no mistake — Kim is sticking to his nuclear weapons and arsenal of missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. While he may hold off on missile and nuclear tests for the time being, as Seoul has indicated, he has said repeatedly that he has no intention of giving them up or of using them as a bargaining chip to improve ties with anybody.
After a year of dangerously high tensions between his regime and the Trump administration, Kim is clearly hoping to woo Seoul away from Washington’s hard line of “maximum pressure.” He is also looking to improve ties with the South as a potential means of keeping the North’s economy afloat.
But his recent moves seem to go a step beyond that.
Even without any lasting political breakthroughs, the summits would mark a major personal milestone for Kim, who while being the epicenter of great international anxiety is still known to the world almost exclusively through images and statements that are carefully filtered through North Korea’s state-run propaganda machine.
With the five-year official mourning period for his father now over, and his personal power base seemingly strong, holding a summit would offer Kim a chance to solidify his bona fides as a national leader and bolster his stature in comparison with the legacies of his grandfather, “eternal president” Kim Il Sung, and father.
How far beyond summits Kim is willing or able to go remains to be seen.
Trips abroad can be a risky proposition if a leader isn’t entirely certain stability can be maintained while he is away.
Even so, both of Kim’s predecessors traveled outside North Korea’s borders during their tenures — Kim Il Sung famously visited the Soviet Union and most of Eastern Europe by train in 1984. Kim Jong Un himself has been abroad, having attended school as a boy in Switzerland, and rumors have come up from time to time that he would visit either Beijing or Moscow.
If nothing else, Kim does have an aircraft that is ready for the task.
Kim Yo Jong flew to the South for the Olympics on an aircraft believed to be Kim’s personal jet, decked out to resemble the kind of plane other national leaders use for state trips. That seemed designed to suggest that Kim, like any other leader, could be ready to hop on a flight if the opportunity arose.
Not that he will likely need to do so anytime soon. No one is talking yet of a trip by Kim to Seoul or Washington.
Relations with Beijing have soured under his watch, and while ties with Moscow are relatively better, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attention seems to be focused elsewhere. And a journey to Washington would definitely seem like a long shot.
But then again, a year ago, so did the chances of a summit with Trump or with South Korea’s leader.