Game still on: Kim sends former top-ranking military intel official to US

Now that the war of words has settled down, both North Korea and the US seem intent on holding the Kim-Trump summit as planned in two weeks. Pyongyang’s former top military-intel official is traveling to Washington DC, presumably to hammer out an agenda for the two leaders:


Kim Yong Chol, a four-star general who has been at the forefront of North Korea’s diplomatic outreach, landed at Beijing Capital International Airport on Tuesday, according to television footage from the airport.

He was initially booked on an Air China flight to Washington but changed it to a Wednesday flight bound for New York, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported. That would have him arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport shortly after 2 p.m. Wednesday. …

He will be the highest-ranking North Korean to visit the United States since Gen. Jo Myong Rok went to the White House to see President Bill Clinton in 2000, part of a denuclearization effort that went nowhere.

That’s a good reminder not to get too excited about this effort yet. We’ve been down this road before and came up empty. So too is the general’s destination, which was originally Washington DC but got changed to New York. As the Washington Post points out, North Korean diplomats are confined to New York City as part of their credentialing at the UN, and because the two nations do not have any formal diplomatic relationship. Kim Yong Chol likely had permission to go to DC, but without his support team, he would have had a tougher time working on the summit.


It’s still a good sign that Pyongyang’s taking it seriously. Donald Trump went on Twitter to welcome the envoy to the US, and gave himself the credit for North Korea’s new focus on diplomatic efforts:

Kim Yong Chol’s visit provides a nice bookend to Mike Pompeo’s meetings with Kim Jong-un and other regime figures in April. At the time, Pompeo was still CIA director, which made his visit all the more remarkable and, frankly, a unique intelligence opportunity on its own. KYC’s visit to the Big Apple doesn’t compare in that regard; leadership in the US is open and accessible, perhaps especially so in this administration.

It might give both sides an opportunity to recalculate objectives. The Associated Press’ bureau chief in Pyongyang writes that the Trump administration is making a big mistake in framing the summit as an attempt by the Kims to get American financial assistance. They’re more interested in getting free of sanctions to get investment from the region, especially their neighbors to the south:

Kim is as enthusiastic as Trump to see the summit happen as soon as possible, but the claim that his sudden switch to diplomacy over the past several months shows he is aching for U.S. economic aid and private-sector know-how presents a major problem for the North Korean leader, who can’t be seen as going into the summit with his hat in his hand.

The claim is also quite possibly off target.

North Korea is far more interested in improving trade with China, its economic lifeline, and with South Korea, which it sees as a potential gold mine for tourism and large-scale joint projects. Getting the U.S. to back off sanctions so he can pursue those goals, along with the boost to his legitimacy and whatever security guarantees he can take home, is more likely foremost on Kim’s mind. …

The last thing Kim wants is to give up his nuclear weapons only to have his country overrun with American businessmen and entrepreneurs.


This makes some sense, especially for someone as paranoid about the West as Kim. His regime promotes the philosophy of juche, a kind of rugged self-reliance that is utterly at odds with the actual experience of North Korea. Kim can control the contacts with South Korea, and the relationship with China has been well-established. Having a flood of Americans in North Korea would completely undermine their juche propaganda. They want to be left alone, not co-opted.

It seems doubtful that Kim worries too much about American messaging on this point, however. His subjects don’t have any opportunity to hear it, so the regime can ignore it. So far, the regime has managed to swallow its pride and back off its saber-rattling to get the summit back on, which demonstrates that whatever it is they need, they need it pretty badly at this point.

Update: Fixed headline; should have been “US,” not “DC.”

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