North Korean leader Kim Jong Un holds a massive advantage over President Donald Trump heading into their historic summit planned for Tuesday, and whom he plays it against could shape the fate of the region for decades to come.
Kim is 34. The Kim dynasty has held power for about 70 years in North Korea, with leaders serving until their deaths.
Kim’s massive advantage over Trump, and even China, is that he could lead his country for another half a century. Trump, 71, is at the mercy of a US system that limits him to eight years in power at most.
Even Chinese President Xi Jinping, who abolished term limits to potentially extend his rule indefinitely, is 64 with no apparent successor.
As Trump himself has acknowledged, making an agreement with Kim could be easy. Even if North Korea is disingenuous and has no intention of getting rid of its nuclear arms, Kim could most likely get a deal with Trump to slowly remove the weapons and just wait out the clock until Trump leaves office.
But does Kim simply want to play Trump for sanctions relief? Or can the young leader outfox his older counterparts by playing the long game?
Many estimate that China, with its 1.4 billion citizens, will surpass the US in global dominance within Kim’s lifetime. If Kim just wants to slam Trump with a raw deal and reap short-term benefits, he has a good opportunity to do so now.
A bad deal for the US, one that hastens or brings about the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea, would most likely accelerate the loss of US influence in the world’s most populous region, thereby hastening the decline of the US as the world’s superpower.
But that would also accelerate China’s rise and upset the delicate balance Kim has struck between the US and China. Under Kim, Pyongyang has tried to distance itself from China and establish its independence.
“North Korea has no reason to believe that the US would be willing or able to defend it from China,” Hugh White, an Australian defense strategist, told The New York Times. “Who in Pyongyang would believe that America could fight and win a land war against China on China’s borders?”
On Monday, Pyongyang’s state-run newspaper, one of the few outlets North Koreans can freely read, appeared to be laying the groundwork for a new, normalized relationship with the US.
The Korean dream
Korea is in many ways beholden to its geography. A peninsula caught between Russia, Japan, and China, Korea has spent its history fending off foreign powers.
The great vision of North Korea’s Kim dynasty has always been an independent Korea that determines its own destiny without being steered by foreigners.
For that reason, Kim may seek to somewhat embrace the US as part of a delicate balancing act.