TOKYO — Just by sitting down with President Trump, Kim Jong Un would get what he craves the most: legitimacy.
He wants to be treated as an equal by the global superpower, and a photo opportunity with the most powerful leader in the free world would go a long way to helping him achieve that.
“This is what his father and his grandfather wanted: to be on the same footing as the world’s greatest power,” said Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official who now teaches at Victoria University in New Zealand.
A meeting with the American president has for decades been considered the prize at the end of a successful denuclearization process, not an incentive to get the process started, and neither Kim’s father nor grandfather made it to that finish line. “So I have to grudgingly take my hat off to him because he’s played a very poor hand brilliantly to get there,” Jackson said.
Since inheriting power from his father at the end of 2011, when he was 27, Kim has been seeking ways to stake his claim to be the rightful heir to the world’s only communist dynasty.
In North Korea, he has played up the notion of having a divine blood right to the leadership, and he has crowed about how strong the nation has become under his leadership, with all those missiles and nuclear weapons.
Now within a matter of months, Kim’s propagandists could fill the front pages with news of a meeting between what they doubtless will describe as the two most powerful men in the world.
“Kim wants to portray himself as the bold leader of a normal, peace-loving nuclear power who can meet an American president as equals,” said Duyeon Kim, a senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul.
Trump on Thursday quickly accepted Kim’s invitation to talks — much more quickly than South Korean President Moon Jae-in, accused in Washington of being too soft on North Korea, accepted his own summit invitation. Preparations are now underway for a meeting between Trump and Kim before the end of May, on the heels of an inter-Korean summit due to be held in the demilitarized zone at the end of April.
That meeting would be a battle between two mercurial and unorthodox leaders, only one of whom has called the other a “pretty smart cookie,” as Trump did last year.
“The thing that they have in common is that both of them think that they can outsmart the other,” said Ralph A. Cossa, president of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum CSIS think tank and a regular interlocutor with North Korean officials. “We’ll have to wait to see who’s right.”
The North Koreans will go into this process with several advantages. For one, they know a lot more about Trump than the United States knows about Kim.
“I’m sure they’ve done their psychological profiles of Donald Trump, just like the CIA has profiled Kim Jong Un,” said Cossa. “The difference is that Kim Jong Un is a much harder nut to crack than Donald Trump, who’s much more transparent. So they’re probably going to have a much better idea of how to play him.”
Dennis Rodman, the former basketball star who has made repeated visits to Pyongyang since Kim rose to power, took a copy of “The Art of the Deal,” Donald Trump’s book on negotiating skills, as a gift for the North Korean leader during his last trip.
Trump’s tactics, as outlined in the 1987 book, include not seeming to be desperate to cut a deal — “that makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead” — and using “truthful hyperbole.”
Chances are the North Koreans have read it. They definitely have been poring over “Fire and Fury,” the explosive book by Michael Wolff about how Trump’s White House is run, according to people in touch with North Korean officials.
A second advantage: The Trump administration has few people with experience in dealing with North Korea, while the apparatchiks in the North Korean Foreign Ministry have been working on little else but the United States.
Ri Yong Ho, North Korea’s foreign minister, was involved in talks that resulted in the “Agreed Framework” denuclearization deal with the United States in 1994.
Choe Son Hui, who was director of the Americas division in the Foreign Ministry until being recently promoted to vice minister, served as an interpreter and close aide to lead negotiator Kim Gye Gwan during the six-party talks in the 2000s.
“They’ve certainly been around the block a few times since then,” said Robert L. Gallucci, who was the lead U.S. negotiator for the 1994 agreement. “And we’ve given North Koreans lots of practice in talking to us since then,” he said, referring to rounds of “track 1.5” talks that have taken place in recent years.
In those talks, North Korean officials — including Ri and Choe — have met with Gallucci and other American former officials who dealt with North Korea-related issues while in government.
The talks, which took place in locations including Mongolia, Norway and Malaysia, have given North Koreans an opportunity to present ideas and test the American response to them, according to participants.
But no serving U.S. officials have attended the talks, and, while aware of them, they have generally pooh-poohed the idea that the talks can serve any purpose in the nuclear standoff.
The talks have, however, served a purpose for the North Korean officials. “They’ve become substantially more sophisticated over the years,” said Gallucci, who last met them in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at the end of 2016.
During talks near Geneva this past September — attended by officials from all of the six parties except the United States, which was represented only by former officials — the North Korean participants stunned their counterparts with their encyclopedic knowledge of Trump’s tweets and familiarity with the U.S. legislative process.
“They are going to be supremely prepared for this,” said Cossa, who was at the meeting near Geneva.
The fact that Kim is prepared to go ahead with two summits — one in April with Moon, and one in May with Trump — while huge joint military exercises take place in the South is revealing, analysts say.
“What Kim Jong Un wants is very clear,” said Ryoo Kihl-jae, a former South Korean minister of unification who now teaches at Ewha Womans University. “In the short run, sanctions relief is one of his goals.”
Trump has been pushing a “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea to force it into talks, and those sanctions, both direct and through the United Nations, now appear to be hurting.
But sanctions relief is just part of Kim’s ultimate goal: ensuring the safety of his regime.
“Kim wants the threats from the U.S. to be resolved, and he is ready to engage in ‘give-and-take’ negotiations with neighboring countries,” Ryoo said.
That is where things are bound to get tricky.
Trump is talking about denuclearization, but North Korea is talking about “the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula” — a phrase that it has used in the past when insisting the United States should withdraw its troops from South Korea.
Pyongyang previously has insisted that its nuclear weapons — which it considers key to the regime’s survival — are not on the table, while Washington has insisted that denuclearization is the end goal.
But those challenges are still to come. For now, with one invitation, Kim has deftly moved all talk of military options and “bloody noses” to the back burner.
“He’s short-circuiting all this war talk going around in Washington, and he’s buying time to create a stable security environment, and he’s also checking a box on symbolism,” said Jackson, of Victoria University. “And all without having to give up anything for it.”
Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.