TOKYO (AP) — More than six years after assuming power, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has yet to complete one of the defining rituals of a world leader — hosting another head of state, or being welcomed by one on an official visit abroad.
Could this be the year that changes?
Kim’s moves over the past few months suggest he is at least flirting with the idea — though in a typically cautious and limited way — by pushing for a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. His meeting this week with a top South Korean delegation to hash out that proposal points to both political maneuvering and possibly a broader attempt by Kim to step more firmly out from the shadows of his predecessors as North Korea’s undisputed supreme leader.
Details of the two-day talks were not immediately clear. South Korean officials were expected to brief reporters in Seoul after the delegation’s return Tuesday evening.
But a key item on the agenda for the delegation, the most senior to visit North Korea in more than a decade, was believed to have been Kim’s proposal for Moon to come to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, as soon as possible for a North-South summit. Moon was initially noncommittal about the idea, so the talks were aimed in part at creating the right conditions for it to work.
With the South Koreans in town, Kim seemed to cherish a role he rarely gets to take — that of a magnanimous head of state welcoming important foreign guests.
North Korea’s state-run media made a point of portraying him as a confident statesman, holding court over a lavish dinner, beaming with satisfaction during group photos and congratulating South Korea for successfully staging the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
That’s quite a dramatic departure from the predominant images of 2017 — Kim surrounded by his generals celebrating their latest missile launch.
A North-South summit wouldn’t be a first. Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, met his South Korean counterparts in 2000 and 2007.
But to show just how important such a meeting would be to him, Kim sent his younger sister to make the pitch directly to Moon last month, when she attended the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Her visit marked the first time a member of the Kim family had ever crossed the border.
Make no mistake — Kim is sticking to his nuclear weapons and arsenal of missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. He has said repeatedly that he has no intention of giving them up or of using them as a bargaining chip to improve ties with Seoul, Washington or anybody else.
After a year of dangerously high tensions between his regime and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, Kim is clearly hoping to woo Seoul away from Washington’s hard line of “maximum pressure.” He is also looking to improved ties with the South as a potential means of keeping the North’s economy afloat.
His recent moves, however, seem to go a step beyond that.
Even without any lasting political breakthroughs, a summit would mark a major personal milestone for Kim, who while being the epicenter of great international anxiety is still known to the world almost exclusively through images and statements that are carefully filtered through North Korea’s state-run propaganda machine.
With the five-year official mourning period for his father now over, and his personal powerbase seemingly strong, hosting a summit would offer Kim a chance to solidify his credentials as a bone fide national leader and bolster his stature in comparison with the legacies of his grandfather, “eternal president” Kim Il Sung, and father, Kim Jong Il.
How far beyond a summit with South Korea Kim is willing or able to go remains to be seen.
Trips abroad can be a risky proposition if a leader isn’t entirely certain stability can be maintained while he is away.
But both of Kim’s predecessors traveled outside North Korea’s borders during their tenures — Kim Il Sung famously visited the Soviet Union and most of eastern Europe by train in 1984. Kim Jong Un himself has been abroad, having attended school as a boy in Switzerland, and rumors have come up from time to time that he would visit either Beijing or Moscow.
If nothing else, it appears Kim does have an aircraft ready for the task.
Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, flew to the South for the Olympics on an aircraft believed to be Kim Jong Un’s personal jet, which was decked out to resemble the kind of plane other national leaders use for state trips. The optics seemed designed to suggest Kim, like any other political leader, could be ready to hop on a flight if the opportunity arose.
Not that he will likely need to do so anytime soon.
The previous inter-Korea summits were both held in Pyongyang, and no one is talking yet of a trip by Kim to Seoul.
Relations with Beijing have soured under his watch and while ties with Moscow are relatively better, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attention seems to be focused elsewhere. And despite Trump’s casual remarks otherwise, a journey to Washington would definitely seem like a longshot.
Eric Talmadge has been the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief since 2013. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter: @erictalmadge.