It’s a measure of Kim Jong Un’s confidence as North Korean leader that he’s left his country to meet US President Donald Trump in Singapore, the farthest he’s traveled since taking on his father’s role in 2011.
But even as Kim prepares to meet with Trump at a resort island in the tiny city-state, he has a phalanx of loyalists and hardliners watching from home, waiting to see what he agrees to before returning to North Korea.
“I think it would be very odd if Kim didn’t feel at least a pang of concern in this regard,” said Andrew O’Neil, dean of the Griffith Business School at Griffith University in Australia. “After all, this is a leader who hasn’t hesitated to use decisive force against domestic adversaries and has been schooled in the lessons of his father and grandfather,” he told CNN.
The survival of the Kim family dynasty has been the driving force of North Korea’s quest for nuclear power, a quest that began with Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung.
In the lead up to Tuesday’s summit, Pyongyang has bristled at comparisons raised by some in the Trump White House of a model of denuclearization that would follow the precedent set by Libya. Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi admitted international inspectors and abandoned his nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief and a return to the international community. He was later deposed and killed during fighting that broke out in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Monday the US was ready to make security assurances to Kim Jong Un.
“We’re prepared to provide certainty that denuclearization isn’t something that ends badly for them,” Pompeo told reporters in Singapore.
“We are prepared to make security assurances that are different and unique than America has been willing to provide previously. We think this is necessary and appropriate,” he said.
Purges in Pyongyang
Shortly after Kim came to power he began consolidating his rule with a series of purges that didn’t exclude people he was related to, like his uncle Jang Song-taek, who he had executed in 2013 after accusing him of attempting to overthrow the government. Kim has spent the years since cultivating a cadre of senior military officials who are as dependent on him as he is on them.
“Kim Jong Un has probably taken some time to gain full control,” said O’Neil. The purges, he argues, “also indicate that Kim has the intestinal fortitude to take on and destroy those he believes pose an actual or possible threat to his control over the state.” How Kim derives allegiance, “through a mixture of terror and rewards for loyalty, will be drawn from the playbook of his father and grandfather, as well as observations he has gained elsewhere.”
Kim has kept a low profile since his arrival in Singapore on Sunday on a jet loaned for the occasion by Beijing. Yet his scant appearances have revealed a very self-assured politician, something the world was already able to observe during the April 27 inter-Korean summit, when he joked, cajoled and listened attentively to South Korean President Moon Jae-in during their day-long meeting and dinner.
Boundaries set ahead of talks
A CNN team witnessed his arrival on Sunday at the luxurious St Regis Hotel in Singapore, noting that he strolled leisurely to the elevators to go to his suite, seemingly oblivious to the multitude of spectators firmly trained on his every movement.
The world will be watching Tuesday when Trump and Kim meet on Sentosa Island, and while there’s much talk about what they could agree to, details of any deal are mere speculation.
While both sides have talked about denuclearization, wide differences remain as to what is included in the process: how long it would take, and what sanctions relief might come before the complete, irreversible, verifiable dismantlement that the US is demanding.
Key for Kim is what he’ll be able to take home to Pyongyang, whether it’ll be acceptable to the upper ranks of government, or stir any rumblings of disloyalty.
Seong Whun Cheon, a former South Korean government official who worked in the defense and unification departments, is skeptical that North Korea will ever abandon its nuclear arsenal, and doesn’t think Kim will go very far at all in his talks with Trump for that reason.
“Kim Jong Un has already set the boundary he can go with Trump, which he set for the international community as well as the North Korean people: a gradual North Korean version of denuclearization in tandem with step-by-step reduction of sanctions and other diplomatic and security benefits,” he said.
“He will never spell such words as ‘renunciation’ or ‘elimination’ of nukes, or returning to the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state,” said Cheon, now a visiting research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
Kim recently replaced three top defense chiefs with three younger military officials. At the time, US intelligence officials said they saw the move as driven by Kim’s desire to maintain control rather than any concern about being ousted from power.
That view is echoed by Lisa Collins, a fellow at the Office of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, who said the shuffle was part of a longer process of power consolidation by Kim.
“Over the last couple of years he has purged officials who were loyal to his father and has replaced them with high-level officials that are loyal to him and whom he can trust,” she told CNN.
“I think this is actually a sign of Kim Jong Un’s strength as a leader, not necessarily of his weakness. If he wasn’t in control he would be worried about shaking things up so close to the summit and eliciting backlash from the military elites,” Collins said.
“We don’t know why they were replaced,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “Kim has purged hundreds of officials during his reign. There is a tendency to depict replacement of North Korean officials as replacing hardliners with moderates. There are no moderates in North Korea. It’s like replacing Sonny Corleone with Michael Corleone. He may talk and dress better, but he’s still from the same family.”
A new era of relations
On Monday North Korean state television reported Kim’s travel to Singapore for the “historical first DPRK-USA summit,” referring to the country’s official name: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The summit, the anchor said, “is garnering the attention and hopes of the entire world,” and that “comprehensive and in-depth views will be exchanged on issues of common interest, such as establishing a new DPRK-USA relations” that reflect “changing requirements of the new era, establishing firm and permanent peace on the Korean peninsula and denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
From all outward appearances, North Korea, its military and its institutions are all in lockstop behind their “Dear Supreme Leader.”
He comes to the meeting with Trump with more political certainty at his back than the American president.
“Kim is about as powerful as a totalitarian leader can be,” said ret. Lt Col David Jonas, a judge advocate and expert in nuclear nonproliferation law.
“There seem to be few, if any, real checks on his power. While he certainly depends on his loyalists to remain in charge, as would, quite frankly, any leader, he probably has more leeway than almost any other world leader.”