What Kim Jong Un Wants From Trump

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Why has Kim Jong Un suddenly sought high-level diplomacy after years of bearing any burden to obtain nukes and a diversified missile arsenal capable of striking the United States? The Trump administration and its surrogates have interpreted the North Korean leader’s diplomatic turn as buckling to maximum pressure in their narrative, unprecedented sanctions and the looming threat of war have brought Kim to heel. To many South Koreans and Korea watchers sympathetic to the Moon Jae-in government in Seoul, Kim has sought dialogue because of Moon’s diplomatic acumen; Moon has been able to broker peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas while keeping the United States from attacking the North.

Both narratives give far too much credit to the United States and South Korea, and too little to Kim’s strategy. So far, everyone is playing Kim’s game. Failing to recognize that generates huge unnecessary risks to the U.S.-South Korea alliance and U.S. interests in the region.

Korea experts are fond of saying that Kim values survival above all else. But that’s as true as it is unrevealing. Everyone values survival. That says nothing about how everyone seeks to survive, and self-preservation has never stopped anyone from pursuing other near-term and long-term goals beyond the minimalism of not dying. Kim’s diplomacy is part of a strategy he’s been pursuing for years. Kim is playing several games here through reaching out to Trump, he’s advancing his position in several of them at once.

What Kim Wants

When Kim came to power in 2011, after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, he inherited not only the family-run North Korean dictatorship, but also the Kims’ longstanding goal of reunifying the Koreas. Kim has upheld that goal in his rhetoric, both internal and external. While there has never been much detail about what unification is supposed to look like from North Korea’s perspective, the prevailing assumption has always been that it does not include a U.S. alliance with South Korea or a U.S. troop presence in the South. North Korean (and even leftist South Korean) propaganda has always portrayed the United States as an obstacle to unification, even though its notion of unification can’t possibly be the same as the South’s presumption of absorbing North Korea or extending democratic governance northward. That’s certainly not what Kim has in mind. But because unification is a somewhat abstract aspiration, it also doesn’t have a deadline.

Kim has more concrete goals that are evident in North Korea’s word and deed, and that happen to also propel North Korea toward the meta-goal of unification, but on terms favorable to the North. Kim has sought to 1) secure his rule against internal challengers, 2) achieve and demonstrate a reliable nuclear deterrent, 3) improve his people’s quality of life, and 4) elevate North Korea’s international standing as a nuclear state. Until very recently, his priority has been the first two goals. Having made significant progress on them, with his current charm offensive, Kim is now aiming to do the same for the latter two.

These four priorities, paired with the far-off ambitions of unification, are a logical response to the situation Kim inherited. He faced a legitimacy deficit when he first came to power because he was an inexperienced, Swiss-educated millennial and the youngest son in a culture that privileges the first-born. Many Korea experts expected he wouldn’t be up to the job and, as a consequence, wouldn’t be long for this world. But Kim almost immediately set about killing and purging a long list of senior North Korean officials—more than 300, by one estimate—including executing his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was widely seen as the No. 2 man in the North at the time. It was never clear if this reign of terror was a sign of Kim’s strength or insecurity, but the body count suggests he’s made progress in girding himself against internal rivals, real or imagined.

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