Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, waves from a limousine as he departs the inter-Korean summit at the village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Paju, South Korea. (Source: Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps/Pool via Bloomberg)

Kim's Surprising Charm Offensive Pressures Trump Before Summit

(Bloomberg) -- Kim Jong Un is turning on the charm ahead of his summit with Donald Trump, adding pressure on the U.S. president to ease sanctions against North Korea even before it’s made any significant concessions.

The 34-year-old dictator plans to invite foreign journalists to witness the shutdown of North Korea’s main nuclear weapons test site in May, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s spokesman told reporters on Sunday. The revelation came shortly after Kim pledged “complete denuclearization” at a meeting with Moon on Friday, without providing further detail.

Kim's Surprising Charm Offensive Pressures Trump Before Summit

During that summit -- the first time a North Korean leader has ever stepped foot on the southern side of the Peninsula -- Kim and Moon shook hands, hugged and planted a tree. Kim capped it off with live remarks to reporters, something none of his predecessors had done.

“We underestimate Kim Jong Un at our peril,” said Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum CSIS and a former special assistant to the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. “His orchestration of events thus far has been exceptional.”

While Kim’s recent actions have spurred hope that the seven-decade conflict on the Korean Peninsula may be coming to an end, skeptics worry that he’s simply buying time to reduce the risk of war and ease United Nations sanctions against his regime. Either way, he’s managed to shift international opinion in a matter of months.

China’s state-run Global Times newspaper has called on the U.S., South Korea and Japan to lift unilateral sanctions on North Korea, and Moon left open the possibility of economic cooperation during his meeting with Kim. Those moves have come despite Trump’s pledge to maintain sanctions until denuclearization is accomplished.

“North Korea’s offer to shut down its nuclear test site in front of everyone could soften the mood and make the international society to support its ‘sincerity,’ giving Kim Jong Un bargaining power ahead of his meeting with Trump,” said Namkoong Young, who has taught inter-Korean politics at Seoul-based Hankuk University of Foreign Studies for more than 25 years.

A South Korean poll conducted over the weekend found that almost 90 percent of respondents agreed with the summit’s outcome. Moon’s administration said Monday it would begin removing loudspeakers near the border to build trust, while North Korea announced that it would align its time zone with South Korea.

‘I Don’t Think He’s Playing’

Kim told Moon that he “isn’t the type of person” to use nuclear weapons, and he had no reason to “live in difficulties” because of his arsenal if he can build trust with the U.S., South Korean presidential spokesman Yoon Young-chan told reporters in Seoul on Sunday. Last week, Kim said he would shutdown his nuclear test site and halt missile testing as North Korea turns its attention to growing its economy.

Moon’s office said Sunday that he and Trump agreed in their phone call that the U.S. president should meet with Kim as soon as possible in a bid to maintain “the momentum of the success” of Friday’s historic meeting of the Korean leaders. Trump said over the weekend it could take place “over the next three or four weeks.”

“We will, I think, come up with a solution and, if we don’t, we leave the room with great respect and we just keep it going,” said Trump, speaking to reporters at the beginning of a meeting in the Oval Office with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Trump added: “I don’t think he’s playing.”

‘Irreversible’ Denuclearization

In an interview broadcast Sunday, new U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo -- who met with Kim over the Easter weekend -- said the North Korean leader was “very well prepared” and “understood the mission exactly as I described it today.” The administration’s objective is “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” Pompeo said.

Yet skeptics have reasons to doubt. Kim’s statements on denuclearization so far have been couched in global terms, implying that he would surrender his atomic arsenal only when all other countries have done so.

Reports also suggest that North Korea’s nuclear site has been so badly damaged that it can no longer be used, undermining the significance of Kim’s announcement. The North Korean leader told Moon that two tunnels at the nuclear test site are still in good condition, Yoon said Sunday.

One ominous sign was a commentary from North Korean state-run media following Kim’s summit with Moon that chided the U.S. for brandishing the “rotten ‘sanctions’ stick.” In the joint Moon-Kim statement, the leaders called for cooperation on road and rail projects -- a difficult task with the current restrictions in place.

“Kim is certainly playing his hand well,” said Corey Wallace, a fellow in the Graduate School of East Asian Studies at Free University of Berlin. “We don’t know if Kim is really only playing for time, or if he is serious about trying to reach some kind of settlement.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.