North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is known for pushing the envelope with threats and bluster as he seeks to leverage his nuclear weapons program into security and economic benefits for his country, but lately he has gained notoriety for his envelopes.
US President Donald Trump on Friday said that his on-again-off-again summit with Kim was on again.
The announcement came after Trump hosted North Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee Vice Chairman Kim Yong-chol at the White House, who delivered a personal letter from Kim in a white envelope nearly as large as a folded newspaper.
Trump has not yet revealed what was written in the letter, but he appeared happy to get it. A photo showed a grinning Trump holding up the envelope alongside Kim Yong-chol, the most senior North Korean to visit the White House in 18 years, as they posed in front of a portrait of former US president Thomas Jefferson in the Oval Office.
The photo made the rounds on social media, where theories abounded about why Kim Jong-un would have sent Trump what seemed like a comically oversized letter. Did Kim Jong-un, a third-generation hereditary leader, think Trump would share his love for lavish gestures and things grandiose?
After spending months trading insults and war threats with him, has Kim Jong-un learned that the way to influence Trump is to appeal to his ego — something that South Korean President Moon Jae-in tried in April, when he openly endorsed Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize?
No one outside North Korea likely knows the real reason for the letter’s size. It could just be that is how Kim Jong-un likes it.
Moon, who lobbied hard for nuclear negotiations between Trump and Kim Jong-un, received a letter of similar size from Kim Jong-un during February’s Pyongchang Winter Olympics in which he expressed a desire for an inter-Korean summit.
Kim Jong-un’s letter to Moon was personally delivered by his youngest sister, Vice Director of the Korean Workers’ Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department Kim Yo-jong, who attended the Olympics as a special envoy, and it was covered by a blue folder emblazoned with a golden seal.
Analysts said that the gesture of sending the letter itself is part of the meticulous steps that North Korea is taking to present Kim Jong-un as a legitimate international statesman who is reasonable, and capable of negotiating solutions and making deals.
While trying to communicate its willingness to embrace Western diplomatic norms, Pyongyang has put in painstaking efforts to maintain reciprocity with Washington and Seoul, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Kim Yong-chol’s trip to Washington was clearly a response to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveling to Pyongyang twice over the past few weeks for pre-summit negotiations with Kim Jong-un.
Likewise, Kim Jong-un’s letter to Trump would have been a reciprocal response to Trump’s own letter to Kim on May 24 that temporarily shelved the highly anticipated meeting, Yang said.
In his letter printed on White House stationery, Trump, in an uncharacteristically warm and congenial tone, said he was canceling the summit because of North Korea’s harsh comments about US officials, but also wrote Kim: “Please do not hesitate to call me or write.”
North Korea then issued an unusually conciliatory response to Trump’s letter, with North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs First Vice Minister Kim Kye-gwan saying in a statement that Pyongyang “highly appreciated” Trump’s willingness to hold a summit, calling it a “bold decision, which any other US presidents dared not.”
Hours later, Trump said the summit was potentially back on.
Kim Jong-un’s letter to Trump on Friday will probably borrow much of the language from the statement by Kim Kye-gwan, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
“Kim would begin by praising Trump’s leadership and his ‘bold decision’ to build up the summit,” said Koh, who is also a policy adviser to the South Korean president. “He will then talk about denuclearization, ending hostility and normalizing relations between the countries.”
Because of the directness and weight of formality they provide, Kim Jong-un might see personal letters as an important way to communicate with leaders of countries that the North has never had close ties with, Koh said.
His father and grandfather, who never favored letter diplomacy, mostly limited the exchange of letters and telegrams with traditional ally Beijing and Moscow.
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