Little was known of Kim Jong Un when he assumed North Korea’s leadership in December 2011. Reporting on his ascent following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, The New York Times noted: “Mr. Kim is young—believed to be in his 20s—and untested, making him more vulnerable to challenges.”
In the intervening seven years, Kim all but closed himself off to the outside world, cemented his hold on power, and advanced an already advanced nuclear-weapons program. During this time, he has also evaded international sanctions, opposition to his nuclear ambitions from his regime’s most important friends in Beijing, and withstood first the Obama-era policy of “strategic patience” and then the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure and engagement” approach.
It was, said Jung Pak, who studied Kim as a U.S. intelligence analyst, the North Korean leader’s version of “maximum pressure.”
“He did not engage diplomatically at all in those first seven years, probably because he didn’t want to hear the Chinese nagging him about advancing these weapons,” Pak, who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me. “And also he wasn’t going to start bargaining or negotiating them away.”
Apparently until Friday. That was when Kim and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae In, met for a historic summit and announced they would work toward a nuclear weapons–free Korean peninsula and a formal peace treaty to officially end the 1950–53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice. Next up: a possible summit meeting with President Trump; ahead of which, on Sunday, a South Korean government spokesman said Kim had offered to give up his nuclear weapons in exchange for U.S. security guarantees.