The letter sent by Donald Trump to Kim Jong-un on May 24 gave the impression that no opportunities remained open for a historic meeting between the sitting president of the United States and the leader of North Korea. The missive, polite in tone but also steady in recalling the United States' immense nuclear capabilities – a reminder of the "my button is bigger than yours" rhetoric – blamed Pyongyang for the "tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in [your] most recent statement," charging North Korea with full responsibility for the "missed opportunity".
The statement referred to Pyongyang's act of defining Vice-President Mike Pence as a "political dummy". It also referred to the indirect threat of a nuclear conflict, made by the North Korean Vice-Foreign Minister, Choe Son Hui, after Pence – in an interview broadcast on Fox News – had warned that North Korea's regime could end up like that of colonel Muammar Qaddafi, former Libyan leader. Qaddafi gave up his nascent nuclear program in the apparent hope of staving off Western intervention and sanctions, and of negotiating economic integration with Western powers. However, little of that happened. His position was weakened by the United States and its European allies' military actions against Libya, and he was later killed by rebels. The so-called "Libyan model", along with American requests for Pyongyang's "unilateral" abandonment of its nuclear program, has constantly terrified the North Korean regime, convinced that the nuclear program is the only resource it has to guarantee regime survival.
The letter provoked astonishment in Seoul: President Moon Jae-in, who had just returned from Washington, D.C., was “perplexed” and possibly embarrassed, after all the efforts he had made to make the rapprochement with North Korea possible. Remarkably, he was not alerted by the White House ahead of time. The South Korean President, who has shown exceptional diplomatic skills over the last few months, had a second – unannounced – "flash" meeting with Kim Jong-un on the North Korean side of Panmunjoem, during which the latter supposedly declared his willingness to get rid of the nuclear arsenal, thereby satisfying the preconditions Trump had originally posed for the meeting to be held. Back on track, Trump and Kim have understood that the meeting represents a unique opportunity for both and they have started making serious preparations for the celebration of the "wedding". Kim Yong Chol, the Vice Chairman of North Korea – a man under American sanctions for a number of allegations, including approval for the Sony hack in 2014 and the torpedo attack on the South Korean navy ship Cheonan in 2010 – was granted a special waiver to visit the United States. There he met with the Secretary of State in New York, and, unexpectedly, with Trump himself, giving the president a letter signed by Kim Jong-un in which the North Korean leader reconfirmed his interest in the meeting.
These conciliatory gestures have brought both Trump and Kim to Singapore, as originally planned, for a summit that can only be defined as historic. It is, in fact, the first time a sitting American president has the opportunity to shake hands with a North Korean leader. This, paradoxically, will happen between two leaders who, in the recent past, have not hesitated to insult each other and have threatened, several times, to reduce the other’s country to an ocean of devastation by recurring to nuclear weapons.
There are multiple reasons that have convinced Kim not to waste the opportunity of a meeting with Trump. The most important is probably obvious, and it is to be found in the legitimacy the meeting will grant him. North Korea, especially in the last few years, under Kim Jong-un's leadership, has made a lot of advancements in its nuclear and missile programs; this had possibly only one objective, i.e. leading the country to becoming accepted as a nuclear state and, for this, being treated as a peer by interlocutors, most significantly by Washington. Therefore, having brought his nation to this condition, Kim could not help but seize the opportunity to sit at the same table with Trump, a moment which will be symbolically unprecedented for the North Korean leader. From this point of view, he has achieved much more than both his grandfather, who negotiated the 1994 Framework Agreement with former US president, Jimmy Carter, and his father, who met Bill Clinton in 2009, when he travelled to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of two American journalists. Against this backdrop, it is easy to imagine how in North Korean propaganda celebrations will take place, adulating Kim Jong-un for having succeeded in bringing the American president to the table. Should the summit be a complete failure, it will still work well as propaganda fodder for North Koreans, who, of course, will not be provided with full details. Further domestic legitimation of the regime is the real objective. This, of course, is reinforced by the fact that by meeting with representatives of the United States, North Korea immediately and automatically becomes a "real" and "normal" country, shaking off the reign-of-terror image that the country has always been associated with.
When Kim Jong-un succeeded his father at the end of 2011, North Korea was sadly known for the brutally repressive policy of its regime, the generalized malnutrition of its population and bellicose propaganda. The young dictator, at that time aged 27, had no qualifications other than being part of the ruling family, and for several commentators this might have meant the demise of the regime. Kim, however, has survived all threats, has consolidated his leadership by eliminating potential rivals (both his uncle and stepbrother) and has largely improved his nation's nuclear and missile programs, thereby becoming a real thorn in the side of the whole international community. As if this were not enough, recently, Kim, who had always been reluctant to appear on the international scene, has discovered the subtle and noble art of diplomacy by meeting with Xi Jinping, Moon Jae-in, Sergej Lavrov and being courted by many other politicians seeking to meet him sooner rather than later. Kim is therefore in a position of relative strength and is very prepared and knowledgeable: he even knows the technical details the denuclearization process that will be negotiated during the meeting with Trump. For this reason, treating him merely as a "smart cookie", as Trump once defined him, would be a real mistake.
A second reason, intertwined with the first, is that Kim wants to turn his attention to the economic conditions of his country. The dual-track policy (byungjin) he introduced in 2013 consisted of the simultaneous advancement of the nuclear program and the economy: the first pillar was completed, as announced in November last year. North Korea is now supposedly ready to start promoting economic reforms that would eventually improve the living conditions of the population. In order to do this, it is important for Kim to alleviate international sanctions against his regime's bellicose behavior. This would also give him the chance to be less entrapped by dependence on exclusive trade with Beijing.
The third reason is represented by Kim Jong-un's young age. He knows that he can rule over North Korea for many decades and he does not want to be deposed and treated as a criminal. Therefore, in order to "die in his bed" and to grant security for his regime, he needs to slow down his provocations by recurring to negotiations that, of course, would not necessarily mean the end of North Korea's nuclear arsenal. As he has certainly learnt from the conduct of his ancestors, one of the strategies that can be eventually adopted is biding time on significant commitments toward denuclearization without making real steps to that end.
For Trump, on the other side, the meeting is a clear political victory. The "maximum pressure" approach – a term that finally has been abolished as a sign of respect towards North Korea – was (partially) responsible for the organization of the meeting. The goal the Americans continue to have in mind, however, is the same as in the past: complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean arsenal. This, of course, is an almost utopian objective and, to some extent, a challenging game. First of all, as perfectly shown by Siegfried Hecker – a respected nuclear scientist who has had the opportunity to visit North Korea's nuclear laboratories several times – a complete denuclearization, that can only take place in a "phased manner", will take a lot of time (10-15 years) and energies. Throughout this lengthy process, of course, North Korea could decide to stop the dismantlement and reintegrate its nuclear endowments, not to mention the fact that it will be very difficult to verify any irreversibility once the process of dismantling has begun. On the other hand, we should not forget that, as effectively shown by America's withdrawal from the "Iran deal", which took two years of negotiations by the Obama administration before being reduced to ashes by Trump, Americans can change their minds, and this would be viewed as a constant threat by North Koreans, who fear their regime can be weakened only to be eventually beheaded at a later stage. This means that despite what Kim and Trump will decide during the meeting, there will always be room for future defection, especially given the fact that North Korea has promised a staged denuclearization for years.
There were, however, other solutions to the North Korean issue than the meeting. Pyongyang has stopped its provocations, and not welcoming this with open arms would be absurd and illogical. Finally – as it must be – the two are going to tango in Singapore: if it ends with a magnificent casqué or with a tumble remains to be seen.