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Why was Kim Jong Un’s letter for Donald Trump so big

The letter by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was inside a white envelope nearly as large as a folded newspaper.

world Updated: Jun 02, 2018 15:45 IST
Associated Press
Associated Press
Associated Press, Seoul
Kim Jong Un,Donald Trump,Kim Jong Un's letter
Former North Korean military intelligence chief Kim Yong Chol, President Donald Trump, and secretary of state Mike Pompeo, right, walk from the Oval Office in Washington on June 1. (AP Photo)

In dangling its nuclear and long-range missiles in exchange for American security and economic benefits, North Korea is pushing the diplomatic envelope like never before. And the envelope is literally huge.

President Donald Trump on Friday declared that his on-and-off summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was on again, the latest shift in a diplomatic theatrics to resolve the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang. The announcement came after Trump hosted a senior North Korean envoy at the White House, who conveyed a personal letter by Kim that was inside a white envelope nearly as large as a folded newspaper.

Trump has not yet revealed what was written in the letter, but he sure seemed happy to get it. A photo showed Trump holding up the envelope with a Cheshire cat grin alongside an also smiling Kim Yong Chol, the most senior North Korean to visit the White House in 18 years, as they posed in front of a Thomas Jefferson portrait.

The photo made rounds on social media, where theories abound why Kim would have sent Trump what seemed as a comically oversized letter.

Did Kim, a third-generation heredity 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 learned that the way to influence Trump is to appeal to his ego — something South Korean President Moon Jae-in seemed to try in April when he openly vouched for Trump as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize?

It’s probably none of those things, or at least, not entirely. The huge letter is just part of meticulous steps taken by North Korea to present Kim as a legitimate international statesman who is reasonable and capable of negotiating solutions and making deals, analysts say.

Following a provocative 2017 in which his engineers tested a purported thermonuclear warhead and long-range missiles that could target American cities, Kim has engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity in recent months in what’s seen as an attempt to break out of isolation and obtain sanctions relief to build his economy.

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 tit-for-tat after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, twice in recent weeks for pre-summit negotiations with Kim. Likewise, Kim’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 says.

In sentences that were 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 U.S. officials. But he also told Kim “please do not hesitate to call me or write.”

North Korea issued an unusually conciliatory response to Trump’s letter, with senior diplomat Kim Kye Gwan saying in a statement that Pyongyang had “inwardly highly appreciated” Trump’s efforts for 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’s letter to Trump on Friday will probably borrow much of the language from the statement of his vice foreign minister, 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 might see personal letters as an important way to communicate with leaders of countries the North never had close ties with, Koh said.

This sets Kim apart from his father and grandfather who were never bold proponents of letter diplomacy and mostly limited the exchange of letters and telegrams with traditional ally Beijing and, to a lesser extent, Moscow. It remains unclear whether North Korean Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok was carrying a letter from the late Kim Jong Il, the second North Korean leader, when he visited former President Bill Clinton at the White House in 2000.

As for the size of Kim Jong Un’s letter? Maybe that’s just how he likes it.

Moon, who lobbied hard for nuclear negotiations between Trump and Kim, received a letter of similar size from Kim during February’s Winter Olympics where he expressed a desire for an inter-Korean summit.

Kim’s to letter to Moon was personally delivered by Kim’s sister who attended the Olympics as a special envoy and was covered by a blue folder emblazoned with a golden seal. There could be a similar folder inside Trump’s envelope, Koh said.

First Published: Jun 02, 2018 15:08 IST