TOKYO (AP) — After six years of seclusion, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seems to want to get out and see the world.
Kim’s surprise summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week was the first time he’d traveled outside of his country since he assumed power in 2011, according to his own state media. But Beijing is just the start of his ambitious coming out party.
Next is a meeting just south of the Demilitarized Zone with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, then the trickiest meeting of all, with President Donald Trump in an as-yet undisclosed location. He is also rumored to be considering a sit-down with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, while one of his staunchest critics, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, says he wants some face time, too.
Why the sudden penchant for travel?
A look at where Kim’s been, where he might be headed and what kind of “souvenirs” he’ll be hoping to gather along the way:
In hindsight, this was the obvious choice for Kim’s international debut.
China is far and away the North’s most important economic partner, and it has tightened its sanctions in recent months to increase the pressure on Kim to ease up with his nuclear weapons program. Kim has appeared less willing to toe Beijing’s line, however, and relations between the two countries have suffered.
By suddenly showing up in China on Monday, he completely changed that narrative.
It’s not known yet what Kim and Xi discussed.
Two things are clear. By hosting Kim before anyone else, Xi very effectively reasserted China’s primary role in defusing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, which has long been a key national security concern for Beijing. For Kim, meeting with Xi first means he will go into his summits with Moon and Trump better informed and less isolated.
More importantly for Kim, the visit could be a step toward persuading China to ease its sanctions, or at least how strictly they are enforced.
The announcement that Kim and Moon would meet face to face was the first shocker of the year.
Kim floated the idea by sending his invitation-bearing sister to the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics last month. The meeting is planned for late April in a truce village inside the DMZ.
Symbolically, it’s a huge step forward. Moon and his liberal government have been taking the initiative to reach out to the North after a year of escalating missile launches and angry rhetorical barrages. Kim extended an olive branch of his own in January, vowing to make improved relations one of his top priorities for the year.
Until Kim showed up in Beijing, it appeared Moon would be his first summit partner.
While that somewhat blurs the focus on North-South detente, the emotional story line of Korean nationalism and the hope of reunification is still bound to play well with Kim’s domestic audience. North Korea is working on several development projects that appear aimed at boosting South Korean tourism to its east coast.
Optimistic, yes. But it’s worked for Pyongyang before.
Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, played that card nicely in the previous inter-Korea summits, held in 2000 and 2007.