The Putin-Kim Summit: An Uneasy Episode in Kim’s Introduction to a Brave New World

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right) and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un (left). During his summit meeting with Kim on April 25, 2019, in Vladivostok, Russia, Putin had the opportunity to resolve some matters with regard to relations between their countries. Russia and North Korea are more than just friends; they are allies. In Washington, a reasonable concern would be that Putin used the meeting in part to mangle inroads made by US President Donald Trump with Kim, and spun up the young leader enough to cause him to drift back into a posture of belligerence. In reality, he may have unwittingly done the opposite.

The fate of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), good or bad, will likely be decided at this moment in time. Hopefully, what is negative, wrong, and evil, will not walk upon the scene. The potential source of those ills could possibly be Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. During his summit meeting with North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong-un on April 25, 2019, in Vladivostok, Russia, Putin had the opportunity to resolve some matters with regard to relations between their countries. Russia and North Korea are more than just friends; they are allies. Presumably, an item for discussion during the meeting was the diplomatic process on denuclearization in which Kim has been engaged with US President Donald Trump for more than a year.

Kim’s vist to Vladivostok was actually a two-day affair. Beginning on April 24, 2019, there were compliments and toasts offered with affectation, and the photo opportunities swollen with the pretension of a great friendship between the two leaders. Yet, despite all of that, beneath the surface, where mostly those obsessed with scrutinizing such events closely might look, Putin’s approach to Kim was not tender, but rather rough edged and, to a degree, domineering. Some analysts and scholars who study the Russian leader and, to the extent possible, understand his idiosyncrasies and the nuances of his facial expressions and body language, chalked it all up to Putin just being Putin. It was perceived by others as a display of Soviet-style formality. The suggestion being that not much should be put into Putin’s behavior at Vladivostok. However, the results of the meeting bare out the idea that Putin, to put it plainly, was not very nice to Kim. Consider that Putin did nothing special to help him. If he did, it was so subtle that it could not to be seen. Putin certainly did nothing publicly to convince anyone that he was Kim’s benefactor or protector. If he did, giving notice to the world of such a pledge is the usual way to ensure other countries would pay heed. Alas, he did not do that. Kim apparently failed to correctly parse out Putin’s agenda, moreover his concept and intent, with regard to North Korea before he arrived. Kim likely came to Vladivostok comforted by the thought that the Russian relationship has been long-term, beneficial, and historically speaking, reliable. He perhaps thought he might be able to eek out some type of additional assistance from Russia, in some form or another. If Kim truly came to Vladivostok with that purpose, his was truly an anemic effort. That approach may have left him open to the measures of the artful Putin.

A reasonable concern over Vladivostok in Washington would be that Putin used the meeting in part to mangle the inroads achieved by Trump with Kim, and that he may have successfully spun up the young North Korean leader enough to cause him to drift back into a posture of belligerence. Throw on top of that reports in the US news media indicating that even before Kim left for Vladivostok, there was intelligence apparently collected by the US on activity taking place at facilities related to North Korea’s supposedly dormant nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs. That would present the possibility that Kim wants to have the capability to leap back into developing systems that will allow him the launch a nuclear strike against the mainland US. Such would be an act of daylight madness by Kim. To intuit that the diplomatic effort at this point is still somewhat fragile surely would not be out of court. However, as result of his relatively lukewarm reception of the young North Korean leader, Putin may have actually given that diplomatic process a boost by bumping Kim in the direction of Trump. So different are the approaches and opportunities presented respectively by Trump and Putin, that Kim’s choice of whom to travel North Korea’s path into the future is essentially black and white. There is no equivalence, no shared attitude toward people, no mutual conduct displayed, no matching diplomatic techniques, for Kim to find comparison between the two leaders. Through the next set of communications and via a third summit, Trump may have the opportunity to capitalize on Putin’s shrewd, but barbed and unconventional moves. Si computes annos, exiguum tempus, si vices rerum, aevum putes. (If you compute the years in which all this has happened, it is but a little while; if you number the vicissitudes, it seems an age.)

There were compliments and toasts offered with affectation, and the photo opportunities swollen with the pretension of a great friendship between the two leaders during Kim’s visit. Yet, despite all of that, beneath the surface, perhaps where mainly those obsessed with scrutinizing such events closely might look, Putin’s approach to Kim was rough edged and, to a degree, domineering. Some analysts and scholars who study the Russian leader chalked it all up to Putin just being Putin. However, the results of the meeting bare out the idea that Putin, to put it plainly, was not very nice to Kim.

A Reality Check for Kim

Kim seemingly came to Vladivostok bearing all of Pyongyang’s vulnerabilities and anxieties on his sleeve. The Achilles Heel of North Korea is its economy. That economy has been in an absolute shambles for many decades. Through the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign targeted at North Korea’s economy, the country has been slowly strangled to death. Kim may have been desperate to maintain or increase Russia’s economic munificence in talks with Putin. As for his country’s anxieties, Kim, from the start of the Trump administration, boasted about North Korea’s nuclear weapons and burgeoning capability to reach the US with them. However, the US has the actual capability and capacity to attack and destroy North Korea. Away from the rallies and loudspeakers in his country through which he has convinced his people that their country is part of a larger bulwark of anti-US countries in Northeast Asia, there is the reality that Pyongyang’s allies in Moscow and Beijing would never put their countries’ well-being at risk for North Korea. There is the additional reality that North Korea was more of a financial strain and psychic drain on Russia and China than a useful and valued asset as a buffer against the US and its allies in the region. It is likely that Putin, to some extent, saw the meeting as an opportunity to demonstrate that what Russia thinks and says has relevance with regard to Northeast Asia, a region in which its territory resides. Putin had been unsuccessful in finding the angle to latch on and carve out an influential role for Russia in the Trump-Kim Talks. Putin surely knows why Trump was not so eager to offer him a place in the diplomatic process.  He was already on fairly shaky ground with the US President over Russian efforts to interfere in US elections as well as Russian misdeeds in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Venezuela, Syria, and other points around the world.

Perhaps it was thought in Moscow and Pyongyang prior to the actual meeting that Vladivostok had the potential to become a public relations triumph. However, the world appeared to take only a moderate interest in events there. Public relations-wise, Trump had already made an authentic splash with his first meeting with Kim on June 12, 2018 in Singapore. His second meeting from February 27, 2019 to February 28, 2019 in Hanoi also drew quite a bit of attention. After Kim met with Trump in Singapore and Hanoi, there was a real sense that a new energy, new hope for peace and progress in Northeast Asia had been created. Kim was brought out the hermit kingdom to discover a brave new world, a world from which his people still remain isolated. For introducing him to that world, Kim really has much to thank Trump for. Any luster was left to glean from a Kim meeting was exploited by Chinese President Xi Jinping when they met from March 25, 2018 to March 28, 2018 and January 7, 2019 to January 10, 2019. Indeed, by the time Kim met with Putin in Vladivostok, he was no longer the mystifying, obscure young leader in Pyongyang.

In the search for indicia that there was plenty of goodwill between the Russian and North Korean leaders and the meeting served to advance their relationship, much has been made of the fact that Putin was reportedly thirty minutes early for the April 25th meeting and waited for Kim. That fact takes on greater significance given Putin’s well-known history for arriving late for meetings with world leaders. He was nearly one hour late for his Helsinki Meeting with Trump in July 2018, four hours and fifteen minutes late for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2014, fifty minutes late for a meeting with Pope Francis in 2015, and a tame fourteen minutes late for a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II in 2003. Yet perhaps conversely to creating a positive atmosphere around which the Russian-North Korean relationship could be viewed internationally, Putin was of the mind to set a sort of trap for Kim. The goal of which most likely was to suss Kim out and, at the right time, take the opportunity to establish the nature of their relationship as leaders. As a result of that effort, the entire visit had a strange feel. Everything seemed a bit off kilter, a little grayish. Certainly, Putin and Kim were never too chummy publicly. Putin’s personal approach and demeanor toward Kim did not mirror that of the avuncular Trump. Rather, he behaved nearly in the manner of a cold-hearted, Ian Fleming’s James Bond sort of “gangster as spy” of whom Trump’s critics and detractors inappropriately claim the US President faced in Hamburg, Da Nang, Helsinki, and Buenos Aires. He did not! Putin handled Kim much as a bewildered target for recruitment. As it was previously discussed in a February 28, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “A Russian Threat on Two Fronts: A New Understanding of Putin, Not Inadequate Old Ones, Will Allow the Best Response,” Putin prepares for his meetings or any other forms of contact with another national leader or senior foreign diplomatic official, in advance, by mining all available information and by considering all possible angles of how an interlocutor might challenge him and how he would explain himself in a plausible, satisfying way. Being engaged in an exceptionally devious sort of manipulation of Kim, one could be certain that every little move made in Vladivostok was performed with purpose. To that extent, even the anomaly of Putin’s punctuality was a calculated step.

Putin (right) and Kim (left) on escalator in Vladivostok. Taking cues from how the two men appeared standing together, Putin clearly was the leader and Kim was the follower. Perhaps in the confidential one on one meeting between them, Putin also sought to establish his position as “the boss” with Kim. Intriguingly, at Vladivostok, Putin was practically every bit the Ian Fleming’s James Bond sort of cold-hearted, gangster as spy about which critics and detractors of Trump have endlessly waxed and have inappropriately claimed the US President faced in Hamburg, Da Nang, Helsinki, and Buenos Aires.

Attempting to reach into Kim’s head concerning the visit, Putin probably calculated that he would be very optimistic over the outcome of his visit. Putin may have also parsed out that Kim believed that there was virtually an organic affinity between them given the long relationship Russia has had with North Korea. That affinity would be primarily founded on the notion that Putin was raised and served for years as an officer of the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known as the KGB in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was the original, unholy bastion of Communism, Marxist-Leninism, and Socialism, which form the political underpinnings of North Korea today. Russia, a former Soviet republic, was at the center of the collapsed superpower. Moscow was the Soviet capital. Further, in support of his grandfather and hero, Kim Il-sung, the Soviet Union provided not only weapons, equipment and training for North Korean forces during the Korean War, but covertly provided Soviet soldiers and airmen to to engage covertly in combat operations. (China’s commitment to its North Korean ally during the war was even greater.) Thus, Putin would be reasonably assured that drawing Kim in would not pose difficulties. Ensuring that he would be able to exert influence on Kim would be his main task. Putin’s effort to miniaturize Kim was almost heartbreaking to watch. Yet, few would shed tears for the despotic North Korean leader under the thumb of the ex-Soviet spy. He exploited every opportunity to publicly demonstrate that he was dominant. On each occasion that he did so, he had the look of a cat among pigeons. This is how it looks when expediency and outcomes are given primacy before method. Taking cues from how the two men appeared standing together, Putin clearly was the leader and Kim was the follower. Perhaps in the confidential one on one meeting between them, Putin also sought to establish his position as “the boss” with Kim.

Psychologically, Putin may never have been disposed to even pretend that he was on level terms with Kim. Putin has never spoken of any meeting with another national leader as a “meeting of equals”. Putin has never hesitated to take the “Alpha-male” position with leaders of other countries and let them know his intentions. In Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, Karen Dawisha recounts the occasion when the new prime minister of a Central Asian country paid his first visit to Moscow. He met with Putin. After the cameras had left the room, Putin is said to have loosened his tie, leaned forward, and in a menacing snarl told the startled leader: “Listen here (slushay syuda), I decide everything. Don’t forget it.” (This reality makes Putin’s attitude and behavior with Trump even more intriguing. One can clearly observe a certain grace and sangfroid displayed by the Russian leader. He has never appeared jagged or, even more, threatening in the slightest degree toward Trump at any moment in which they were together publicly.) Among the North Korean people, Kim is the “Alpha-male”, who rules with an iron fist. He is the country’s supreme leader, its champion, its top man above all, deified, never to be second-guessed, never to be challenged. That side of Kim was not present in Vladivostok. There was no swagger, no expressions of conceit from Kim.

Putin may never have been disposed to even pretend that he was on level terms with Kim. He has never spoken of any meeting with another national leader as a “meeting of equals”. He has never hesitated to take the “Alpha-male” position with leaders of other countries and let them know his intentions. In Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, author Karen Dawisha recounts the occasion when the new prime minister of a Central Asian country paid his first visit to Moscow. He met with Putin. After the cameras had left the room, Putin is said to have loosened his tie, leaned forward, and in a menacing snarl told the startled leader: “Listen here (slushay syuda), I decide everything. Don’t forget it.”

Something that one might also consider is that in adherence to the principles of Korean culture, a world that he understands well, Kim likely sought to show a degree of deference to Putin as a part of his responsibilities as a guest. He likely believed his host would display an equal degree of authentic respect and graciousness toward him and the North Korean delegation. In that way, the kibun (mood or inner feelings) of both visitors and hosts would remain balanced in a harmonious environment. Kim encountered that sort of experience in Singapore, Hanoi, and Beijing. In Vladivostok, Kim was figuratively moving blindly in “the real” new world outside of North Korea. He seemed confused by the web Putin had spun for him. Indeed, seeing the footage revealed to the public of Kim’s expressions, gestures, and positions in Vladivostok, one might have trouble believing Kim was sure of anything while there. No one could show Kim the way while in Russia. Lucky enough for him, he maintained his balance, saw his way through, and made his way home. For Kim, it was doubtlessly an embarrassing chain of events. If those in Pyongyang who might read this would pardon greatcharlie’s freedom, Kim appeared to be caught completely off guard by Putin and stumbling around with his pants at his ankles in Vladivostok.

The Putin-Kim meeting most assuredly was not an inflexion point in Russian North Korean relations. Beyond Putin’s use of the meeting to remind Kim of the nature of their relationship, it is difficult to discern, with certitude, what was accomplished in Vladivostok. Urgent and important matters specific to their countries underpinning the meeting, at least officially, were not sufficiently enumerated publicly. From what was witnessed, no significant change in the geostrategic balance in Northeast Asia or relations in general among countries in the region that resulted from the meeting. As for dealing with the US as a threat, Kim did not appear to have been given the assurance of support from his country’s longtime “ally” that he wanted receive. It could be imagined that instead of promising to provide a type of nuclear umbrella for North Korea that the US provides for its allies in the region, Putin, in a hollow gesture, likely praised Kim’s willingness to take on the US and found his devotion and heroic disregard for death admirable. Concerning the denuclearization diplomacy with the US, it would be difficult to believe that Kim was given, at any point while meeting with Putin, solid, hopeful advice. Putin most likely acted in the manner of a dark muse for Kim on the matter.

Given that economic conditions of both countries have been greatly harmed by US sanctions and both leaders have publicly indicated that they would like to have all international trade sanctions removed, one might extrapolate that the matter of business, relations, business activities, between the two countries were broached. Russian-North Korean business ties are divided between a modicum of legitimate and substantial illicit activity. Legitimate trade was limited to $34 million in 2018 due mainly to sanctions against North Korea. Statistics on gains from illicit activity are not available here but reportedly clandestine sanctions busting efforts are ongoing and apparently profitable enough to be worth the risk. It would not be a matter too trite to be managed by the two leaders as detection by the international community of any clandestine business activities, disallowed by sanctions, would mean grave consequences for both countries via sanctions. Through the process of monitoring their business activities, the international community has learned that transport agents in the Russian Federation have prepared documents for North Korean vessels. The government has not denied that. However, certain actions  have also been taken to help North Korea evade sanctions. Port services have allegedly been provided to North Korean-flagged ships. North Korean vessels have been fueled in Russia. The sale of that fuel to them by representatives of certain firms has been ignored. No interest is given to whomever might be selling cargo and oil products to the North Koreans. Further, a blind eye is turn toward whomever may be loading North Korean vessels. Vasili Kolchanov, head of the Russian Federation port services agency involved, explained to Reuters: “It’s not our concern who fuels the vessels, who sells that fuel, who they buy the cargo and oil products from.” He further stated: “We do not load vessels. As an agent, I only need to check that they have permission from customs.”

The type of business Putin would like Russia to develop with North Korea concerns mineral resources, including rare metals. Kim would like access to Russian electricity supplies. While Moscow generally views North Korea as a poor investment, Kim would like Russia to invest in the modernization of Soviet-built industrial plants, railways and other infrastructure. Nevertheless, as long as sanctions remain in place, none of that will come to fruition.

Image of an illegal cargo transfer to a North Korea vessel on the open sea. (above). Economic conditions of Russia and North Korea have been greatly harmed by US and UN trade sanctions. One might extrapolate that business activities between the two countries was a key issue in the Putin-Kim talks. Russian-North Korean business ties are divided between the legitimate and illicit. Detection by the international community of any clandestine business activities disallowed by sanctions would mean grave consequences for both countries.

Kim’s Health

Taking a look at Putin’s bearing in Vladivostok, the Russian leader made a proper showing of himself as the usual sharp, strapping Russian leader. It was the loose, athletic, macho Putin, who in meetings exudes confidence, high-energy, and a readiness to do business. Taking a comparable look at Kim’s bearing, one could reasonably state that he appeared to be having health problems. Being most apparently somewhat outside of his appropriate weight range and being a smoker, it could be expected that Kim would be dealing with dome underlying health issues. However, in Vladivostok, Kim simply looked unhealthy. Kim breathed laboriously as if he had anything from a very bad cold, bronchitis, asthma, or pneumonia, to something much worse, such as a pulmonary edema, a pulmonary embolism, or some other pulmonary episode. A far lesser possibility now, but one worthy of consideration at the time of the Vladivostok meeting is that Kim was suffering from a myocardial infarction (heart attack) of a Type 2 diabetic, slowly dying in discomfort, without appropriate care.

In every video clip made public of the North Korean leader in Vladivostok, Kim appeared pale, shuddering, breathless. At times he additionally appeared disoriented, uncertain, uncomfortable, anxious, even jumpy. This uneasy behavior was not observed in Kim in Singapore, Hanoi, or Beijing. Thinking in a way similar to greatcharlie, Eric Talmadge of the Associated Press, stated in his article published in Time magazine on April 26, 2019: “What caught the attention of many outside observers Thursday wasn’t the scene, but the sound — of Kim’s loud breathing. Clips of the introductory encounter were quickly tweeted around the world, many with comments about the leader’s audible breathlessness. South Korea’s media, meanwhile, speculated that it could be a sign of Kim’s poor health. He is, after all, overweight and a notoriously heavy smoker.” According to Talmadge, Kim has evinced similar health problems at previous high-level meetings. Some may recall that in April 2018, on the occasion of his first summit meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, he looked out of breath as he signed a guestbook following a short walk.

The following link, https://youtu.be/40M-cfOhqxQ, provides a short video clip of one of several occasions at the Putin-Kim summit during which Kim’s labored breathing can be seen. Please focus on the region of the thorax between the neck and diaphragm in the front of Kim’s body or stated more plainly, his chest. On medical matters, greatcharlie is somewhat out of its province. Nonetheless, it seems fitting in this case, no matter how clumsy it may seem, for it to engage in an unlicensed, uncertified foray as an apothecary, to better understand Kim’s behavior. If Putin noticed Kim’s condition, odd behavior, in response, he showed him no quarter, no sympathy.

Kim takes cigarette break in China while en route to Hanoi Summit (above). In Vladivostok, Kim looked unhealthy. He breathed laboriously as if he had anything from a very bad cold, bronchitis, asthma, or pneumonia, to something much worse, such as a pulmonary edema, a pulmonary embolism, or some other pulmonary episode. A far lesser possibility now, but one worthy of consideration at the time in Vladivostok was that Kim may have been suffering from a myocardial infarction (heart attack) of a Type 2 diabetic, slowly dying in discomfort. If Putin noticed Kim’s condition, he showed him no sympathy.

In addition to directing attention at Kim’s difficulty breathing, the international news media noted what was generally described as an awkward gift exchange. Kim gave Putin a sword. Interestingly, among Russians, presenting swords and knives is considered sign of bad omen that could lead to disagreements and confrontations. Kim may have been aware of that superstition when decided to present Putin with a sword. After all, Russians and North Koreans are certainly not strangers to one another. Both Putin and Kim have sufficient, well-qualified experts to inform them of the nuances of gift giving in the respective cultures. Still, Kim presented it anyway, perhaps believing that Putin would be impressed with its size and value. Putin’s gift to Kim was even more intriguing. He gave Kim a coin. Video of the gift exchange made public show Kim completely befuddled in response. He seemed disappointed, closely eyeing the coin, clearly fazed by its diminutive size and relatively low value.

One might attempt to airbrush the episode by suggesting that Putin meant well when he gave Kim the coin, but that is unlikely. Putin was surely well-aware of Kim’s tastes and what would please him when deciding upon a gift for him. Gifting Kim with a coin may have been an atrocious display of Kremlin wit. Indeed, there is the real possibly that the coin presentation served as a banal amusement devised by Putin and his circle of mostly male acolytes. They may have wanted to witness an “entertaining”, stunned reaction from Kim. Even worse, a darker meaning of the gift could have been to create the impression that Putin was giving coin to a beggar. Along with their boss, the boys’ club in the Kremlin’s Senate building, who most likely in private mock and lampoon foreign leaders, have too often allowed such predictable, over-rehearsed, bad behavior, insinuate itself in important matters. Recently, it has been a persistent, distasteful theme in Russian diplomatic behavior that analysts and scholars have either missed or ignored. Indeed, Putin has been engaging in rather curious form of gift giving. Notable was his public presentation of a soccer ball to Trump in Helsinki. In response, Trump looked at the ball with a smirk, stated that he would give it to his son Darren, palmed it with his large right hand, and then casually tossed it one-handed to the First Lady, Melania Trump.

Despite the many problems associated with their interactions, Kim seemed to speak in harmony with Putin after the summit, and adhered to an anti-US line. It is unclear whether Kim simply wanted to oblige Putin just for old times’ sake or create the impression that he achieved some success in Russia. It may also be that he was left with little choice but to acquiesce to Putin’s position. At a post summit press conference, Putin, projecting a sense of accomplishment, stated that the North Korea’s denuclearization was necessary, but he insisted that North Korean sovereignty must be recognized and that security guarantees must be provided to Pyongyang. For Putin, security guarantees is a alternative way of stating the US must retreat from Northeast Asia, abandoning its longtime allies, and most importantly, remove the nuclear umbrella that shields those allies from a nuclear threat, not just from the North Korea, but also Russia and China as that umbrella was originally designed. Over the years, those capitals have been satisfied to see US military resources, psychic energy, and ire, directed at North Korea. By encouraging North Korea to seek steps that would to improve its security situation by reducing, even weakening the defensive posture of the US and allies in Northeast Asia, Russia would consequently serve its own security needs by invariably weakening the security of the US and its allies versus it, too.

Something that one might also consider is that in adherence to the principles of Korean culture, a world that he understands well, Kim likely sought to show a degree of deference to Putin as a part of his responsibilities as a guest. He likely believed his host would display a similar degree of authentic respect and graciousness toward him and the North Korean delegation. In this way, the kibun (mood or inner feelings) of both visitors and hosts would remain balanced in a harmonious environment. Kim encountered that sort of experience in Singapore, Hanoi, and Beijing. In Vladivostok, Kim was figuratively moving blindly in “the real” new world outside of North Korea. He seemed confused by the web Putin had spun for him.

Wake Up Kim!

Qui non proficit, deficit. (Who does not advance, recedes.) Ideally, for Trump, Kim would come to a third summit strangling at the leash, anxious to get going. It would be counterintuitive for Kim to come into a third round of negotiations with well made plans to melt away sanctions without offering necessary progress on denuclearization. He may very well retreat intellectually and be satisfied to accept advice from the North Korean intelligence services, crafted with an intelligence bigotry of military and security service elites founded on conspiracy theories about Trump and US actions and intentions. Particularly at this cut bait or fish stage, there is the potential for North Korean intelligence services, expert at whipping up scenarios and hypotheticals to expediently conjure up reports that provide support for the politicized or even hysterical views of consumers. (This is a disturbing reality that intelligence services almost everywhere face: hiring in error, individuals without honor, unfit to meet the moral obligations of the job.) The minstrels for the occasional exaggerated, distracting flashes of a belligerent posture to the US have been North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui. To promote peace, and being the responsible party, the Trump administration listens to those expressions, but does not react emotionally to them.

As greatcharlie has noted in previous posts, there is an endless sense of distrust within North Korea toward the West that always comes into play in diplomacy. Further, given what is known about Kim’s psychological disposition, success with him in diplomatic effort was never assured. With Kim, one must take into consideration his selective welcome toward outsiders, pretension exhibited in public displays of affection for his people, reported lurid acts of self-indulgence, irate outbursts, outright cruelty, violent actions towards the people, associates, and family, and murder, Kim has not been popularly described as an up and down, manic depressive. These attitudes and behaviors have been chalked up as the stuff that defines tyrants and despots.

To enlarge on that, one must remember that prior to all of the niceties that followed the Singapore and Hanoi meetings and the many kind letters exchanged between Trump and Kim, the US President accurately assessed in his September 2017 remarks at the UN, that the North Korean leader’s regime was extraordinarily violent. Some expert observers of Kim might call the young leader essentially a sadist who is intoxicated by violence. The March 31, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled “Commentary: Trump-Kim Talks: Will Desire Obey Reason or Will Force Be Used to Overcome Force?” discusses a Yonhap article on an examination made by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (Gukga Jeongbowon) of Kim’s behavior. Trump is well-aware of such reports about Kim. Yet, in the greater cause of denuclearization, international peace and stability, and the betterment of conditions for the people of North Korea, it is expedient to put all of that aside. The focus must be on what is positive, to ensure the diplomatic process is fruitful. If Kim goes down the wrong road, observers should expect to see him figuratively shoot the soccer ball far off to the wrong side of the aluminium goal post at the next summit with Trump. Perhaps Moscow and Beijing, in order to promote their own respective geostrategic goals versus the US, may very well be trying to undermine Trump’s diplomatic efforts with Kim at the moment. Even more, they may be nefariously encouraging him to behave in ways contrary to advancing that diplomacy.

Trump has kept a positive front, projecting optimism with regard to the antithetical attitudes and behavior of the leaders of both Russia and China. He has likely kept in mind that a delicate symmetry does exist among their three countries from which any good basis for a positive interaction now and the future might be founded. Yet, there can be no doubt that Trump is well-aware of their unseemly ways. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo scheduled a visit to Moscow on April 14, 2019, in order to express US concerns over Russian “aggressive and destabilizing actions.” Doubtlessly, Putin’s meeting with Kim in Vladivostok qualified to be an agenda item of the in camera Moscow meetings. In further response to the strategic goals and thinking of its soi-disant friends in Moscow and Beijing, Washington has nourished the strengths and equities of its alliances with allies in Northeast Asia. Those ties that bind the US and its allies in the region are the same ties that assure unity when dealing with Russia and China.

Kim must decide what his priorities are. Though, the choice for Kim, through the use of reason and wisdom alone, seems obvious. Trump offers the best solution for Kim and the North Korean people. North Korea has nothing to gain long-term from Russia and its stumbling economy, made all the worst by Western sanctions leveled upon it. Perhaps just a bit more time is needed before the economic well-being and the geo-strategic position of North Korea genuinely becomes paramount in Kim’s mind. To encourage Kim, Trump has practically indicated that he already has the US checkbook out. He has regularly expressed hope publicly, that Kim will do the best thing and make the right choice.

Trump (right) and Kim (left) in Singapore. Trump offers the best solution for Kim and the North Korean people. North Korea has nothing to gain long-term from Russia and its stumbling economy, made all the worst by Western sanctions leveled upon it. Perhaps just a bit more time is needed before the economic well-being and the geo-strategic position of North Korea genuinely becomes paramount in Kim’s mind. To encourage Kim, Trump has essentially announced that he has the US checkbook out. He has regularly expressed hope publicly, that Kim will do the best thing, make the right choice.

Trump to the Rescue?

Maybe if everything had been going perfectly on the denuclearization front, a third round of summit talks would be an opportunity to put the finishing touches on a deal. Meetings between US and North Korean business, financial, and development experts as well as meetings of international experts forms in various committees ostensibly would have come next in order to get cracking on North Korea sanctions economic rejuvenation. Surely, there is still time for that. At the moment, things are perhaps moving more gradually than initially expected. Yet, optimistically, everyone and everything will eventually arrive at the same place. To that extent, Trump continues to do the best things even in arguably unappealing circumstances with the hope of avoiding a calamitous situation in Northeast Asia. Trump sees no need for scare tactics. At the same time, Trump has kept his weapon, the armed forces of the US and its allies, figuratively cleaned and his sight zeroed. Cito rumpes arum, semper si tensum, habueris, at si laxans, quum voles, erit utilis. (A bow kept taut will quickly break, but kept loosely strung, it will serve you when you need it.)

In April and May of 2019, Kim launched missiles into the Sea of Japan. It may very well be that Kim believed the April 18, 2019 test of North Korea’s new “tactical guided weapon” and its May 4, 2019 “strike drills” using short-range, multiple launch rocket systems, fell well outside of the parameters of his promise to Trump not to test nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. Both weapons systems, fired off North Korea’s west coast, fell into the Sea of Japan, and did not intrude into Japanese or South Korean waters. As a result of the launches, Kim’s intent concerning denuclearization and halting missile development was placed into doubt among most US analysts and scholars. Some went as far as to assess that Trump should have taken a harder line with Kim on the matter. True, no matter how one might look at Kim’s mens rea, his missile launches were unquestionably displays of ill-advised audacity. Yet, Trump felt the tests were not of sufficient order of concern to derail the diplomatic process. He determined that the tests did not constitute, by performance or in spirit, a breach of Kim’s promise concerning weapons testing. His statement in response reflected that thinking. His response was in line with his concept of pitting hope against despondency in the diplomatic process on denuclearization. On May 4, 2019, using his Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump, Trump explained: “Anything in this very interesting world is possible, but I believe that Kim Jong-un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it. He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise me. Deal will happen!” Hopefully, Kim will not push such injudicious activity alongside the borderline on which Trump would not be able to countenance it.

To a larger extent, Trump would hardly believe that Kim thought for a moment that the launches would in any way improve his tactical position against the US. North Korea was never in great shape tactically versus the US, and will never be allowed the opportunity to be so. Trump would hardly imagine Kim thought the launches could somehow strengthen Pyongyang’s hand in the diplomatic process or pull him closer to Pyongyang’s negotiation position. On a more basic level, Trump is aware that many individuals develop and express impressions of decisions and actions of foreign leaders without attempting to detect internal matters that might be driving events. Homosum: humani nil a me alienum puto. (I am human: I consider nothing human alien to me.)

When Kim launched missiles into the Sea of Japan on April and May of 2019, Kim’s intent concerning denuclearization and halting missile development was placed into doubt among most US analysts and scholars. No matter how one might look at Kim’s mens rea, his missile launches were  unquestionably displays of ill-advised audacity. Some analysts and scholars went as far as to asses that Trump should have taken a harder line with Kim on the matter. Trump, however, determined the tests did not constitute, by performance or in spirit, a breach of Kim’s promise not to conduct tests.

A dimension of North Korea that one on the US side must lose sight of is that North Korea is a totalitarian tyranny, stratified in neat rows. To maintain his grip on the ranks of the military and security services in the midst of his denuclearization diplomacy, Kim may have decided to demonstrate his control and interest in the activities and developments within their organizations. It has been best for him to act in this way before even sensing any issues trouble in the ranks, Kim, to some degree, must also be responsive to Workers’ Party of Korea elites and senior leaders of North Korea’s now a tad more significant, forward-thinking, business leaders. North Korean military and security service elites, in particular, might have the sense that denuclearization will have the impact of discrediting and disenfranchising them. They would ostensibly be stripped of a considerable degree of real and psychic power. There would also more than likely be a loss of pride, prestige, and a certain emotional satisfaction. In any actions that he might take, Kim must be certain to avoid precipitating grumblings from them. By the same token, Kim would certainly be intolerant of the slightest scent of fragmentation within the Workers’ Party of Korea as a result of his diplomatic initiative with the US. Rather than avoid or preempt problems in the ranks, Kim might simply punish and obliterate suspected reactionaries and potential ones. Perhaps recent shifts made within the party’s senior leadership reflect his sensitivity to potential dangers.

Among the thoughts of those other than Trump in Washington, a greater concern might be that although Kim has metaphorically boarded the elevator and is riding it up, he does seem willing to travel to the top floor. He appears to be willing to get off several floors beneath it, just short of a grand prize for himself and North Korea. Perhaps when meditating alone over committing fully to a path toward denuclearization and working with the US, Kim may now and then feel slightly unclean in mind and body. Indeed, a turn toward denuclearization would surely require Kim to go against instinct. (In a way, that makes the mere fact that he is very openly considering it an extraordinarily step.) Alternatively, Kim might fear that Trump’s proposal is a cruel hoax, all too good to be true. Fool’s gold offered by a false heart. Considering such thoughts, one would not be on a slender thread to speculate that a real obstacle to working with Kim on denuclearization, may not be external manipulation or domestic concerns at all. There is the possibility that Kim, himself, remains the greatest restrictor to forward movement on a deal. However, in the diplomatic process, Kim is not being asked to bow down to US pressure, its desires, or accept something ephemeral. Putin would not ask for anything less from him. It cannot be stated enough that through Trump, Kim is being presented the opportunity to choose a better future for his people over the misfortune that they are coping with today.

Inter cetera mala, hoc qunque habet stultitia proprium, semper incipit vivere. (Among other evils, folly has also this characteristic, it is always beginning to live.) A potential pitfall for Kim would be failing to realize during a third meeting that Trump will be able to almost immediately read the writing on the wall as to where everything is headed. Indeed, if Kim’s efforts have not been legitimate, Trump will be fairly certain as to the Communist leader’s intentions once he leaves the table. As the erstwhile businessman, Trump will have a contingency plan for bad news. He calls such plans “alternatives.” Those alternatives surely include inflicting an unimaginable tragedy upon North Korea at best through ratcheting up the ongoing maximum pressure campaign of sanctions and at worst via a war fraught with the wreckage of innocent lives. It is also very possible that a prospective war might be fought with nuclear weapons.

In the diplomatic process of denuclearization, Kim is not being asked to bow down the US pressure, its desires. Putin would not ask for anything less from him. Through Trump, Kim is being presented the opportunity to choose a better future for his people. A potential pitfall for Kim is failing to realize during a third meeting that Trump will be able to almost immediately read the writing on the wall as to where everything is headed. Indeed, if Kim’s efforts have not been legitimate, Trump will be certain as to his intentions once he leaves the table. Trump will have a contingency plan. He calls such plans “alternatives.”

When one’s brain is functioning at such a high speed as Trump’s does, it regularly searches into the abstract. With the imagination serving as guide through the obscurity, his mind discriminates, vets, facts and ideas it has both recently encountered and has collected over time. His mind grasps for those most relevant to matter being focused upon. Those separate, yet correlative, facts and ideas are associated and via an even deeper analysis, are given higher meaning. As a result, an impression is formed which Trump’s mind constantly challenges with new information that is introduced to it. Having the ability to think in this way truly places Trump in a different category. (Note: There is no intent here to link Trump’s way of thinking to transcendentalism.)

Despite everything Kim has done so far, Trump, more so than anyone, appears to view him as a national leader, who has albeit made mistakes, but still has promise and is a work in progress. Trump does not believe Kim has limited facilities to improve his mind. Having worked with, coached, and mentored a number of young men and women during his business career as a land developer and builder, Trump has seen many evolve into very capable executives who went on to make the most of opportunities placed before them. Throughout the denuclearization diplomatic process, Trump has taken into account Kim’s emotional response to the process, its meaning, and enormity. Such empathy was likely difficult to muster given the singularity of Kim’s emotional responses. The very type of stresses that Trump wanted to keep out of his denuclearization diplomacy with Kim appeared to weigh heavy on the North Korean leader while he was with the Putin. Trump doubtlessly discerned that something was bringing him down, and seemingly burning him out. To steal a phrase from Trump, Kim “was low energy.”

Hopefully, Kim is self-aware enough to recognize that since June 2018 his relationship with Trump and his sense for what could be accomplished has been moving through a process of maturation. As part of that maturation, Kim must recognize that there needs to be a mutual exchange of inspiration between Trump and himself. If Kim is truly able to apply the discipline of accuracy, think with precision, accept the truth, and discern how beneficial everything Trump has proposed would be for North Korea, he will recognize that Trump has offered the best path possible, and all will be well. Interestingly, Kim, both keeps his hair cut and most often dresses in suits tailored in ways similar to those of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. He has also fashioned his leadership style in his image. However, Kim, as with most humans, may aspire to advance to some greater form of himself. To that extent, there is the real possibility that he will want to take both his people and country to a far higher level from where they stand today.

The Way Forward

In Act III, scene i of William Shakespeare’s The Third Part of Henry VI, King Henry is being held captive by two armed keepers in a forest north of London. Stirring a discussion with his two captors, King Henry discusses his responsibilities as king. He explains that as king he serves for the purpose of his people, not for his own benefit. He states that every king must settle in to that idea. They must accept that is what it means to be a leader. Henry says in that moment: “My crown is in my heart, not on my head; / Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones, / Nor to be seen: my crown is called content: / A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy.” When Putin and Kim met in Vladivostok, everything was seemingly done under the pretense that all was well between the two countries. Still, there was a palpable sense while observing events in Vladivostok that Putin does not want North Korea to advance. He wants to  pull Kim and North Korea backward in time, backward to a circumstance in which North Korea could only define itself as subordinate to Russia and obedient to its whims. It may very well be Putin’s standard behavior with leaders of “lesser countries” and nothing extraordinary. Perhaps Putin, before and after the meeting, viewed Kim as being naive and that he could easily have him eating out of his hand. It has been considered in previous posts by greatcharlie that Trump, being different in his approach, may be able to do things that others cannot. Kim left Vladivostok appearing uncertain of how to respond to what he observed and heard from the Russian Federation President. As aforementioned here, in a scenario favorable for Washington, Kim, having met with Putin, may now be better aware of the stark differences between the respective futures that the Russian and US leaders offer North Korea. Putin met Kim figuratively empty handed as opposed to Trump who offered a golden future for his country. To the extent that Russia can exert influence in the world, particularly its large stake in the energy field, its attention is sought after by some. Whatever influence it may have internationally, it pales in comparison with that of the US.

If Trump had been even a bit iffy about the prospects for his denuclearization diplomacy to succeed, he would not have been able to move forward with it. Still, it is not Trump’s responsibility to be the sole engine behind denuclearization and the legitimate push to advance North Korea economically. If and when he meets with Trump for a third summit, it would behoove Kim to show how he is moving North Korea in that direction. It must be reflected in his proposals, his language, and his demeanor at the negotiation table and away from it. If Kim is unable to recognize the real value in what Trump is offering, at best, he will essentially condemn North Korea to a grey economy of black market and questionable bootleg products of all types, reliant on back alley deals with organized crime and corrupt foreign government officials, cash influx from North Korean guests workers abroad with limited to no access to substantial salaries and remain present in foreign countries at the whim of their governments. Throw on top of that nuclear weapons and long-range missile program that the US fully intends to eliminate if not through diplomacy, through devastating military strikes.

In all likelihood, Kim, would be incensed over failing to remove painful sanctions and end the maximum pressure campaign; impress his people by scoring a diplomatic victory over their US foe by removing sanctions while retaining the DPRK’s nuclear program; and, losing time on developing more nuclear weapons and perfecting their ability to reach the Continental US. If the denuclearization process fails, that will be a tough ticket for Trump to swallow. Yet, rather than being angered, he would likely be saddened over failing to reach the young North Korean leader, to establish a friendship with him, or embrace him as neighbor in this small world; and, to prevent the great potential of the North Korean people from being wasted. Hopefully, none of that will be the case. Nunquam sero te venisse putabo, si salvus veneris. (I shall never think you are late arriving as long as you come safely.)

Commentary: Will the Trump-Kim Summit Yield an Agreement That Is Cosmetic or Consequential?

If an agreement is reached between US President Donald Trump and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) Chairman Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, it would certainly be a great leap forward not only in terms of US-North Korea relations, but also in terms of establishing true global peace and security. Smart money says both Trump and Kim will come through for their people, and the essence of an agreement as initially desired will be put together. The world should wish them well.

If some agreement is reached between US President Donald Trump and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea  (North  Korea) Chairman Kim Jong-un when they meet February 27-28, 2019, in Hanoi, the hope is that it will be more consequential than cosmetic. Since his first meeting with him in Singapore, Trump has been thinking through a new type of partnership with Kim that would be largely economic, and certainly serve the interests of the US and its regional allies. What he has also been doing, however, is creating the circumstances in which the entire world could begin to think well of North Korea and consider how to work well with it. Hopefully, Kim has been preparing his people for a big change, a new path forward. Some observers have demanded to see tangibles, commenting specifically that there are no signed documents agreeing to any plan of action with concrete steps. The reality is that on this monumental undertaking, change will take time. One might refer those impatient observers to the words of the Greek Stoic philosopher of Ancient Rome, Epictetus, which explained: “No thing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.”

What Trump wants in return for a prospective partnership is the same prize that was at the root of his decision to talk with Kim: denuclearization, the end of long-range missile development, the continued return of US remains from the Korean War, and dependability. In exchange, Kim would be assured that economic pressure to include sanctions would be mitigated, and a robust path toward economic renewal, backed by the experience of Trump and the largess of the US would be initiated.

Accepting that has most likely been tough for the North Koreans on many levels. The enormous uplift and national pride, the sense of power and control, that comes with possessing nuclear weapons and the means to use them, elevates their importance in Pyongyang. To that extent, resistance to Kim’s effort could have been expected from many senior officials. Certainly, Kim is well equipped to cope with stubborn resistance to his new efforts in his own way. However, quite different from resistance to a deal, but still threatening enough to it, would be almost inherent lack of desire in Kim or any other official in Pyongyang to be “subsumed” by Washington just to gain advantages or considerations being offered. It must always be remembered that the North Korean government is authoritarian in nature and underpinned by a revolutionary movement. It will be reluctant to trust and slow to accept change. There would unlikely be a desire to integrate with what North Koreans may have for so long demonized as a Western-led international order.

It would be a mistake to believe that reaching an agreement would be seen by North Koreans as a means to acquire some sense of affirmation. For the North Koreans, particularly members of the Workers’ Party of Korea, affirmation can only result from loyalty to Kim, to country, and adherence to revolutionary ideals. That all lies deep within. Reaching an agreement would find greatest acceptance among North Koreans as a decision driven by revolutionary impulse. Additionally, North Koreans would want to know what they might create as a result of an economic revival will rightfully belong to them alone. There would be joy in knowing that whatever they might build would be the product of their own hands, not something given to them or done for them by external agents. Support from Trump must be viewed as being actuated by his humanism, and not negatively perceived as a cloaked manipulation or a quest for US dominance. As noted in Pensées, the collected works of 17th century French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal: “We are generally the better persuaded by the reasons we discover ourselves than by those given to us by others.”

What may also prove challenging for Pyongyang, if an agreement is reached, will be exercising the restraint required when working within the international order. The parameters of of bilateral and multilateral agreements, rules, regulations, and procedures, will need to be obeyed. Pyongyang should not equate using restraint as surrendering control. Rules, regulations, and procedures both established and understood in the international order, allow for sense of certainty, assurance, and safety. If anything, control resides in Pyongyang’s ability to make the decision to enter and to remain in the global economic fray as a genuine player. What is being presented is an authentic opportunity for North Korea to choose to be something other than a stranger to the rest of the world.

Given the great economic and financial benefits expected of a Trump-Kim deal, the question would likely remain in Washington on whether the life condition of the North Korean people would be changed by steps taken by it. Only Kim would be able to decide that. The best hope Washington might have on the matter would be that Kim will accept with “revolutionary zeal and patriotism” that the transformation of the country should touch all levels of North Korean society. Interestingly, if Kim follows through on a deal with Trump, the economic effort could very well be viewed as the greatest attempt to take DPRK’s Revolution to new heights since the Chollima Movement initiated by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, decades ago.

If Trump and Kim reach an agreement in Hanoi, it would certainly be a great leap forward not only for the US and North Korea, but also in terns of establishing true global peace and security. The world should wish them well. China, Vietnam, and Mongolia have gone through similar, yet respectively unique, economic transformations. If some written accord is not reached by the two leaders at the summit, there will be other opportunities to meet. However, if everything goes thoroughly bad at the meeting and this mighty diplomatic effort collapses, both leaders will face a dilemma that could take two forms. One may include cobbling together an agreement to maintain some semblance of the status quo. The other may be to go war. The latter is certainly far more distressing than the former, as it may result in the loss of millions of lives. Smart money says both Trump and Kim will come through for their people, and the essence of an agreement as initially desired will be put together. In his work, Meditations, the renowned Ancient Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, provides apt marching orders for Trump and Kim: “Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then, do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy.”