North Korea’s Central Television had a piece of news to broadcast after the country’s leader Kim Jong-un went to Singapore to attend a summit meeting with the president of the United States: “The Grand Savior Star of the entire universe, Great Leader Kim Jong-un, inspected Singapore and kindly received President Trump.”
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For the North Korean public, which generally knows little of the outside world and hears only the highest superlatives of its leaders in state-controlled news, it was natural to assume that Singapore was also under Mr. Kim’s purview.
As a surprise to many, the Grand Savior Star described Singapore as “clean and beautiful,” and added that he had learned much of its economic potential and how it had developed – according to North Korea’s official news agency. Typically, the high self-esteem of North Korean leaders does not allow them to praise any rich country and the domestic media rarely publish any photos showing them.
Notably, Mr. Kim’s kind assessment was offered even after Singaporean officials, according to a source, had refused the Korean ambassador’s request that all traffic be halted on the roads to be used by Mr. Kim’s motorcade. “Oh, no, we cannot do that, we can’t upset our voters,” the ambassador reportedly heard.
On June 12, 2018, as he sat next to President Trump, Kim Jong-un told international news media (in Korean) that the road to the summit was “not easy” but he had “pushed aside” all “obstacles and difficulties to be here.” Some Chinese believed that he was pointing his finger at China. Having been described as an obstacle was not well-received in Beijing. After all, the Chinese government had lent its jet plane so that the normally bullet-proof-train-traveling Mr. Kim could fly to Singapore. Small wonder that China’s No. 1 official newspaper, the People’s Daily, did not even bother putting news of the summit on its front page.
It has already been six years since Kim Jong-un replaced his late father in the top position in North Korea. And Chinese President Xi Jinping had been in power for five years before March 2018, when he finally met Mr. Kim in person. So why, all of a sudden, did the two feel the need for as many as three get-togethers between March and June of 2018? Under the standard protocol of China-North Korea relations, this never should have happened.
When China learned that Kim Jong-un was to meet the president of the U.S. in three months, the game changed
Traditionally, once China changed its top leader, he would pay a visit to the North Korean “friend and ally” in Pyongyang within a year. President Xi failed to do that, even though he traveled to several Western countries at the beginning of his first term, including the U.S. and the UK. North Korea had requested a Beijing visit for Mr. Kim in 2013 but was refused. China also joined the latest, toughest batch of economic sanctions, imposed on North Korea in response to Mr. Kim’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests. It was clear that Mr. Xi was keeping his distance from the Kim regime.
However, when China learned that Kim Jong-un was to meet the president of the U.S. in three months’ time, the game changed. President Xi invited Kim Jong-un for a three-day, full-honors state visit beginning on March 26, 2018. The Chinese government prepared lavish dinner parties for the North Korean guest. When the Beijing officials praised Mr. Kim, the Chinese public got angry. The internet was filled with pictures of a particularly aggravating sight – that of the dictator holding a glass of Guizhou Maotai, the most famous and expensive brand of Chinese liquor. (A bottle of it goes for $600 in the market. In 2017, a rare variety of it was sold at auction for about $1.5 million.)
On May 8, 2018, Kim Jong-un appeared on Chinese television again. This time, he was meeting with President Xi on an island in Dalian – a harbor city in China’s northeastern Liaoning province. Mr. Xi went to Dalian to participate in the ceremony of greeting the return of the first entirely Chinese-made, Type 001A aircraft carrier from its first sea tests. The president had hoped to impress Mr. Kim by taking him along, but the event had to be canceled at the last moment. Serious problems with the warship’s design and building quality had surfaced during the tests, forcing it to return to the yard.
The North Korean people believe that possessing nuclear weapons makes their country a great power
To own aircraft carriers, like the U.S., has always been one of China’s ambitions and an official goal set by the ruling Communist Party. The construction costs of the 001A reached 76.5 billion yuan ($11.6 billion), yet after seven days at sea, hundreds of cracks appeared in the hull and superstructure, and the engines were ruined. The chief engineer of the construction project and top managers are now under criminal investigation on “suspicion of a serious breach of the party discipline and the law” (the usual euphemism for corruption).
Mr. Kim must have been quietly glad in Dalian that he had borrowed an airplane from China, not an aircraft carrier, to go to Singapore.
‘Why give it all up?’
In Singapore, after the summit, President Trump and Kim Jong-un issued a joint declaration that stated, among other things, that North Korea had committed to the “denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula. When the news reached North Korea, its citizens were shocked. “Are we to give up our nukes?” – they asked in disbelief. That, after the decades of hearing from party officials that building nuclear weapons was North Korea’s birthright? The North Korean people believe that possessing such weapons makes their country a great power, equal to South Korea and the biggest enemy, the U.S. So why give it all up now so suddenly?
The North Koreans felt cheated. Nearly two months after the Trump-Kim summit, North Korea has made no progress toward denuclearization, although it blew up a few old mines as “nuclear test sites.” The real sites are in the north-central Jagang province, which borders China’s Jilin province.
Kim Jong-un delivered a speech recently about the nuclear matter. He has drawn a clear line, he assured his countrymen. The nuclear missile represents the achievement for which the nation paid dearly in belt-tightening, sweat and blood. According to a North Korean government newspaper, he concluded that it should be “handed down to the next generation intact.”
It has been this writer’s consistent view that North Korea will never give up its nuclear capabilities, and this has not changed since the Kim-Trump meeting. If anything, the summit has only deepened the North Koreans’ conviction that the nukes are the only real bargaining chip in their possession. The American president flew all the way to Singapore to see the Great Leader Kim and to discuss them, did he not?