In the past, the words “interview” and “North Korean leader” in the same sentence would have seemed like fiction.
When the movie “The Interview” was released in 2014, North Korea even called it an “act of war.” The strong rhetoric was a response to the movie plot, which traced the story of a TV crew entering the country to kill the North Korean leader on behalf of the CIA.
But on Thursday, Kim Jong Un appeared less troubled by the idea of speaking to Western journalists than headlines from what now appears like a distant era, 2014, would suggest. Ahead of his bilateral talks with President Trump, Kim answered several questions from independent journalists during photo opportunities — including one by The Washington Post’s David Nakamura, who had asked: “Chairman Kim, are you confident, feeling good about a deal?”
"It’s too early to tell. I won’t prejudge,” Kim responded. “From what I feel right now, I do have a feeling that good results will come.”
His response was remarkable for a number of reasons. For one, the cautious optimism appears to have been misplaced, as the summit abruptly ended without a deal. But it was also Kim’s first real interaction with the free press abroad, even as he continues to allow zero public dissent at home and stands accused of horrific human rights violations.
So, why did the North Korean leader allow foreign journalists to drag him into a de-facto mini news conference? One possible explanation is that his unscripted answers may be part of a broader shift in how Kim is portraying himself abroad. While he remains the sacrosanct leader in his own country, he has appeared more willing to act like a more normal politician abroad. By giving up some of the enigmatic aura that had long surrounded him, Kim is indeed managing to be seen as increasingly rational by other nations, even though he has neither stopped his regime’s ruthless human rights violations nor given up his nuclear weapons.
It remains unclear if Kim is willing to give up the weapons that have so far ensured his regime’s survival and Thursday’s bilateral talks have raised further doubts.
But if North Korea were seen as a somewhat more predictably governed country like Pakistan or India — which both have nuclear weapons, too — pressure to fully denuclearize may eventually falter, Pyongyang might hope. (Neither India nor Pakistan may fully deserve that status, as this week’s dangerous escalation of tensions between them is showing.)
In North Korea’s case, there are some clear examples for its efforts to get rid of its image as a rogue nation at least to some extent.
During the first and the second summits with Trump, the photos produced during the bilateral meetings spoke their own language: Kim sitting at a table with officials from the country he had threatened to annihilate only months earlier.
On Thursday, Kim also reemphasized earlier remarks that he would welcome a U.S. liaison office in North Korea, even though the conditions for the establishment of diplomatic relations via such a channel remained unclear.
With no deal reached, hopes for a fast solution have faltered for now.
But the subsequent news conference by Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that Kim’s approach of rebuking U.S. demands is unlikely to be the end of this story, if other negotiations can provide any indication. Throughout the post-summit meeting with reporters, Trump praised a leader with whom he’s technically still in a trade war: Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Responding to a question by a Chinese state media reporter, Trump said that Xi was a “great” and “highly respected” leader worldwide.
Shortly afterward, Trump again praised Xi for getting a lot of “respect.”
To some of the reporters present in the room, it was the second remarkable news conference at the summit on Thursday. This time, however, what was striking wasn’t how many questions from Western journalists the president took — but rather how few.
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