TOKYO -- Is this the year that Kim Jong Un finally meets another leader? The young dictator has been giving new meaning to that clichéd phrase about North Korea – that it’s a “Hermit Kingdom” – by staying at home for three years.
Now, North Korean leaders facing the prospect of crimes against humanity don’t exactly have a lot of travel options, but Kim has really outdone himself by not going abroad and not meeting a single world leader in the three years since he succeeded his father.
It has been particularly noteworthy that the “Great Successor” has not met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, given that North Korea and China were once famously said to be “as close as lips and teeth.”
The lack of tete-a-tete between the two has been interpreted as the clearest sign that Xi is less than impressed with the 30-something-year-old, who, for one thing, had Jang Song-taek, China’s main conduit with China (and Kim’s uncle), executed at the end of 2013.
But things are looking up on the diplomatic front – Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, and even South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, are talking about sitting down with the North Korean leader.
Furthermore, the traditional three-year mourning period for his father, Kim Jong Il, ended last month, freeing up the young leader to make more, well, leaderly moves.
“Kim Jong Un might be ready this year to come out of his cave a bit,” said John Delury, a North Korea expert who teaches at Yonsei University in Seoul. “My sense is that, at some point, he’s going to start leaving, start holding summits.”
Despite the frostiness between Beijing and Pyongyang, a trip across the border is at some point “inevitable,” said Delury, given the fact that North Korea needs China’s aid and trade to stay afloat, and China needs North Korea not to collapse.
But the most likely first stop for Kim – who, unlike his late father, is not afraid of flying – is Moscow. Even with his phobia, Kim Jong Il visited China and Russia during his reign, as did "Eternal President" Kim Il Sung. (Stalin and Mao even gave train carriages to Kim Il Sung to help him get around in style.)
Putin has invited Kim to attend a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in May. South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency this week reported that North Korea had responded positively to the invitation, citing a South Korean diplomatic source. No confirmation was forthcoming.
The World War II ceremony will be held on May 9, and President Obama has also been invited.
Abe, the conservative Japanese prime minister, has signaled that he would be willing to meet Kim to discuss an ongoing – albeit slowly – investigation into the decades-old cases of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea.
And this week, Park said she was prepared to hold talks with Kim without preconditions “to ease this pain [of division] and for peaceful unification.” Park traveled to Pyongyang in 2002 to meet Kim Jong Il.
Her words came little more than a week after Kim said “there is no reason not to hold the highest-level talks if the atmosphere and conditions are met.”
Analysts say that the decision to meet or not to meet will likely depend on how Kim is faring on the domestic front and how his efforts to consolidate power are going.
“When he feels secure enough,” said Yonsei’s Delury, “phase two of the roll-out will be when he starts meeting other world leaders."