For Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s unpredictable young leader, a summit with Donald Trump has much to offer.
For starters, there’d be the craved photo of him shaking hands with a sitting US president. That would be useful propaganda fodder in the decades ahead (he expects to rule for life, after all). With it Kim could show his people that he, unlike his father and grandfather—under whose shadows he still lives—had forced the United States to properly recognize North Korea, with the help of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. And, there’d be the memorabilia.
But there is also risk in attending the summit, currently slated for June 12 in Singapore—for both leaders. But whereas Trump dreads political embarrassment, Kim has more existential fears.
Kim worries that a trip so far from Pyongyang could expose him to a military coup or other attempts to unseat him back home, according to the Washington Post, which cites people familiar with the deliberations (paywall). He’s also reportedly fretting about safeguarding his security in Singapore and ensuring his plane would be able to get enough fuel for the round-trip flight.
Kim’s paranoia about losing power is believed to have played a role in the assassination of his older half-brother Kim Jong Nam early last year in a Malaysian airport. It was likely behind the execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, in 2013, and that of numerous other officials since he took power in 2011.
Having already purged many perceived enemies Kim may now have less reason to fear internal threats to his rule. A number of elite North Koreans also defected in recent years. But it’s hard for outsiders to know.
“For the Kim family, everyone is a potential enemy,” Choi Min Jun, a North Korean defector living in South Korea, told the BBC. “The North Korean military, the General Staff Department, the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces, as well as the entire North Korean people, they are all potential enemies.”
Last week Kim, upset over US-South Korea military drills and indelicate comments by US national security adviser John Bolton, threatened to pull out of the June 12 summit, and Trump admitted yesterday the meeting was in doubt. The US president said that Kim should, for his own good, strike a deal to get rid of its nuclear weapons in exchange for economic opportunities.
“We will guarantee his safety,” said Trump. “He will be safe, he will be happy, his country will be rich, his country will be hardworking and very prosperous.”
But the US cannot protect Kim from threats inside North Korea.