Why Kim Jong-un's desire for a photo with Trump could save the nuclear summit

There's a keepsake that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wants badly out of next month's historic meeting with the U.S. president, experts say. One that they believe is a major reason why the regime's threat to ditch the scheduled summit with Donald Trump is just a bluff.

Chance for picture might be too good to pass up, but North Koreans remain difficult negotiators

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un really wants a photo op with U.S. President Donald Trump. In fact, experts believe that's why he's likely bluffing about ditching next month's summit in Singapore. (KCNA)

There's a simple keepsake that many East Asia scholars agree North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wants badly from Singapore, regardless of whether next month's historic meeting there with the U.S. president ends up breaking down.

It involves a photographer, a handshake and a smiling Donald Trump.

And it remains a major reason why experts believe North Korea's warning it might scrap the summit with President Trump is an empty threat.

Just don't count on any of that resulting in a denuclearization deal that would satisfy the U.S.

"Kim very much wants that photo op with Trump," said Melissa Hanham, a nuclear nonproliferation expert with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. "That's what his father wanted most."

An Aug. 4, 2009, file photo released by Korean Central News Agency shows former U.S. president Bill Clinton with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. Clinton travelled there to secure the release of two American journalists. (Associated Press)

Kim's father, the late Kim Jong-il, only managed to get recognition from a former U.S. president. In 2009, he greeted Bill Clinton when the former president travelled to North Korea to negotiate the release of two American journalists jailed there.

The resulting Clinton-Kim photo was broadcast all over North Korean state media and was featured in a propaganda film.

Yet a sitting U.S. president has never met face to face with a North Korean ruler. Experts believe that to Kim, such an image would confer legitimacy on the international stage for North Korea as a serious nuclear power — the kind of recognition the regime has long craved.

Quitting the Trump-Kim summit now would eliminate that possibility mere days after both leaders agreed to meet on June 12 to discuss a possible denuclearization deal in exchange for sanctions relief.

Last week, the drumbeat for a possible Nobel Peace Prize for Trump began.

But this week, Pyongyang started making some noise of its own — "a wake-up call" for the Trump administration, as Jean Lee, a North Korea expert with the Wilson Center think-tank, put it.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that 'we haven't heard anything' about whether North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will follow through on Pyongyang's threats to pull out of what would be a historic meeting between the two countries. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press; Korea Summit Press Pool via AP)

It came Wednesday in a stern statement from North Korea's first vice-minister of foreign affairs, who expressed "doubt about the U.S. sincerity" for the upcoming negotiations. He referenced "unbridled remarks" by U.S. national security adviser John Bolton proposing the "Libya model" for denuclearization in North Korea.

It's not surprising such a proposal wouldn't sit well with North Korea, given that less than 10 years after Moammar Gadhafi agreed to denuclearize, his regime was attacked by U.S. and European forces during the Arab Spring and he was killed by anti-government rebels in 2011. 

"Our country is neither Libya nor Iraq," the North Korean statement said, alluding to the "miserable fate" that befell both countries as a result of U.S. intervention.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton says the U.S. is not going to soften its demands ahead of a planned summit with North Korea. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Lee said the message is a reminder the North Koreans aren't going to be easy negotiators and that "nothing is locked in."

"Both leaders clearly want to do something significant, but they're so far apart in terms of how this is going to play out," Lee said. "And I think they're both starting to realize that."

Kim and Trump have amped up expectations for the summit to such a degree that to walk away with simply a photo op would be a disappointment, Lee said, although she said "with a photo op, the North Koreans walk away advantageous because at least Kim Jong-un would have the propaganda and legitimacy that comes with sitting down with a U.S. president."

Kim shakes hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during the April 27 talks in Panmunjom, South Korea. (Korea Summit Press Pool via AP)

It's important to recognize the unseen work that lays the groundwork for these high-level summits, noted Harry Kazianis, an analyst with the Center for the National Interest, a conservative think-tank in Washington. Summits usually cap high-level diplomatic negotiations; they don't initiate them.

"You're not going to get Kim and Trump in a room for six to 12 hours and say, 'Figure it out,'" he said. "I'm sure both sides have been negotiating the contours of some sort of deal."

With that in mind, the rebuke from North Korea this week might be the public manifestation of an impasse happening behind the scenes.

"Maybe they wouldn't agree on intrusive inspections; maybe they didn't agree on a timetable [for denuclearization], and this is their way of lashing out," Kazianis said.

North Korea made what he considers goodwill gestures that were also easy concessions, including the release of three American detainees, and pledges to stop missile tests and shutter a reportedly unstable nuclear test site.

Now they expect the U.S. to ante up, Kazianis said.

"The North Koreans want the economic bargains up front. That's been their M.O. for decades — to pocket all the goodies and take a hard bargaining line after that."

Kim Dong-chul, centre, gestures upon his return to the U.S. last week with Kim Hak-song, behind, and Tony Kim, left, after they were freed by North Korea. (AFP/Getty Images)

He warns that such a gamble risks "poisoning the well" if the Trump administration decides a North Korean "game of chicken" is something the U.S. is unwilling to engage in.

The major sticking point will be how the North interprets denuclearization. To Kim, that means denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, including withdrawal of U.S. troops, ending the U.S.-South Korea alliance and withdrawal of the U.S.'s "nuclear umbrella" shielding South Korea and Japan.

To the U.S., it means the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of Kim's nuclear program, the possibility of which seems slim given how vital the regime sees nuclear weapons for its existence.

"I think this summit is in serious jeopardy now," Kazianis said.

Maybe so. But Richard Bush, co-director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, suggested Kim might believe Trump wants this meeting more than he does because he's driven by ego and sees the possibility of securing a deal.

"The president of the strongest power on Earth is willing to come halfway across the world to meet with him, and he's not even a time zone away? That, in some superficial sense, puts them on a par," Bush said.

He expects we haven't seen the last of the North's attempts to rattle the U.S. ahead of a possible summit. The danger is if they overplay their hand.

"You can probably do it twice," he said, "but you can't threaten to walk away too many times."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong