HANOI — In a 20-second exchange on Wednesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did something he’s never had to as the head of the world’s most closed society: Answer a question from a foreign journalist.
The moment came as Kim sat across a wooden table from President Trump during a brief photo opportunity before a closed-door negotiating session in Vietnam over North Korea’s nuclear program. Before reporters were ushered out of the room, The Washington Post’s David Nakamura asked a short, pointed question: “Chairman Kim, are you confident, feeling good about a deal?”
As White House staff tried to whisk reporters out of the room, the young dictator turned around to his interpreter who quickly translated the remark. To the surprise of the throngs of press in attendance, Kim responded to the question and offered a guarded expression of optimism.
“It’s too early to tell. I won’t prejudge,” Kim said. “From what I feel right now, I do have a feeling that good results will come.”
The response was not extraordinary in itself, but for the leader of a country that imprisons dissenters en masse and prohibits any independent media, it marked a first for engaging with America’s free press.
“You’d think anyone would have some stage fright knowing the whole world is watching, but he’s clearly comfortable and confident answering on the spot,” said Duyeon Kim, a Korea expert at the Center for a New American Security. “This is a good phenomenon, the global media should continue to ask him questions as much as possible. It’s best to hear what North Korea thinks directly from Kim himself.”
The culture clash between Kim, who rarely travels outside of North Korea, and the thousands of foreign journalists who descended on Vietnam’s capital for the talks, has been on display all week. When Kim checked into his hotel on Tuesday, the White House promptly shut down a press filing center set up for the traveling press corps to cover the summit. The last-minute change sent the U.S. press scrambling. Television networks had spent weeks setting up cameras, lights, monitors and other equipment shipped halfway across the world to accommodate Kim’s desire for privacy.
But he’s not the only leader who has recoiled at the presence of independent reporters. On Wednesday, the White House abruptly banned four journalists from covering Trump’s dinner with Kim after some of them shouted questions at the leaders during their earlier remarks.
Typically, the White House has upheld the rights and freedom of access of journalists while a president travels overseas, and the questions to Kim on Thursday demonstrated the value in allowing reporters near Kim and other leaders.
Later on Thursday, another journalist edged in a question with Kim following the first round of discussions, and benefited from an intervention by Trump.
Kim was asked if he was ready for the United States to open a liaison office in Pyongyang, something under consideration in the talks. After the question, a North Korean aide appeared to attempt to cut off questions, but the president interjected. “That’s actually an interesting question. I would like to actually hear that answer.”
Kim responded, saying, “That is something that is welcomeable,” and Trump said the idea was a “great thing.”
Duyeon Kim, the Korea expert, said Kim’s responses were likely to prompt a wave of speculation from experts. “In Korean, he said his ‘gut feeling’ tells him good results will come,” she said. “We’ll have to see whether he’s just being passive aggressive, diplomatic or whether he knows a deal will be made to his advantage.”