As North Korea’s reclusive ruler, Kim Jong-un, prepares for a landmark meeting with President Trump, he has seized the diplomatic high ground, making conciliatory gestures on nuclear testing and American troops that have buoyed hopes in South Korea and won praise from Mr. Trump himself, who called it “big progress.”
But Mr. Kim’s audacious moves are unsettling officials in the United States, Japan and China. Some suspect he is posturing in advance of the summit meeting, as well as a separate meeting this coming week with South Korea’s president, and has no real intention of acceding to demands that he relinquish his nuclear weapons.
They worry that his gestures could put Mr. Trump on the defensive in the difficult negotiations to come, by offering symbolically potent but substantively modest concessions in place of genuine disarmament — what one senior American official labeled a “freeze trap.”
The sudden offer of olive branches, from a leader who only four months ago warned the United States that he was ready to launch missiles from a nuclear button on his desk, is sharpening a question that has long bedeviled North Korea watchers: What does Mr. Kim want?
In Washington, most officials and experts believe that the North Korean leader is determined to cement his country’s status as a nuclear state while escaping the chokehold of economic sanctions. His concessions on nuclear testing and the presence of American troops in South Korea, they said, are calculated to prod the United States into easing such penalties, even before the North dismantles its arsenal.
Mr. Trump has vowed not to do that. But aides say he is beguiled by the prospect of making history on the Korean Peninsula. He has yet to impose any preconditions on his meeting with Mr. Kim, not even the release of three Americans who are being held in North Korea, though officials say the United States is working hard to get them out.
This past week, he endorsed Mr. Kim’s effort to reach a peace accord with South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, which would formally end the 68-year military conflict in Korea. Inside the White House, some worry that Mr. Kim will use promises of peace to peel South Korea away from the United States and blunt efforts to force him to give up his nuclear weapons.