Trump, Kim Jong-un letters deepen drama over historic North Korea talks

Trump, Kim Jong-un letters deepen drama over historic North Korea talks

President Trump’s COVID-19 comments got the headlines, but Mr. Trump also opened up to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward about his unique relationship with Kim Jong-un, revealing sensitive correspondence that could be damaging to the pursuit of future talks with the North Korean leader.

A series of private letters from Mr. Kim to the president are excerpted in Mr. Woodward’s book “Rage,” showing the young North Korean leader’s penchant for lavishing Mr. Trump with praise — at times even referring to him as “Your Excellency” — in a fashion analysts say undermines Mr. Kim’s image as a ruthless and unchallenged leader.

Mr. Trump added an unexpected twist to unease already simmering over the possible impact of the letters Thursday by tweeting suddenly that — despite recent speculation to the contrary — “Kim Jong Un is in good health. Never underestimate him!”

The tweet, offered without context or explanation, coincides international speculation about Mr. Kim’s health that began in April when the dictator disappeared from public view for more than a month.

What the release of the letters will mean for U.S.-North Korean diplomacy is almost equally hard to fathom.

Denuclearization talks have gone nowhere since the breakdown of the February 2019 Hanoi summit between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump, a meeting Mr. Trump said he walked away from because Mr. Kim demanded sweeping sanctions relief in exchange for only a limited commitment to destroy part of his nuclear arsenal.

Some national security analysts worry the Kim regime may even be preparing some form of “October surprise” — perhaps by launching an newly developed missile — to disrupt the U.S. election season.

The Pentagon has sought to downplay such concerns, with the head of American forces in South Korea saying Thursday that there were no signs that Pyongyang is preparing to planning many major escalation ahead of an anticipated military parade in Pyongyang next month.

“There’s people suggesting that perhaps there will be a rollout of a new weapon system. Maybe, but we’re not seeing any indications right now of any sort of lashing out,” U.S. Army Gen. Robert Abrams told a webinar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank.

A CSIS report circulated last week set off alarm bells with satellite imagery of a North Korean shipyard showing activity that some said suggested preparations for a test of a medium-range submarine-launched ballistic missile. Since the first Trump-Kim summit in 2018, the North has staged only shorter-range missiles tests and held off on new nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests.

Markus Garlauskas, a former high-level U.S. intelligence official, says it’s likely “just a matter of time” before the Kim regime resumes such tests.

“North Korean state media has been very clear that Kim has threatened that there’s going to be a new strategic weapon reveal, and that he no longer feels bound by his previous pledges not to test ICBMs or nuclear weapons,” Mr. Garlauskas, a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council, told a webinar hosted Wednesday by the U.S. Institute for Peace.

Enter Mr. Woodward’s book, in which Mr. Trump is quoted as saying he was impressed with Mr. Kim when he first met the North Korean leader in Singapore in 2018 and that the North Korean leader was “far beyond smart.”

Mr. Kim “tells me everything,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Woodward, with the dictator even once providing a private and graphic accounting of how he had his own uncle killed in North Korea.

Mr. Trump told Mr. Woodward that in order to effectively connect with Mr. Kim, he had to dismiss U.S. intelligence assessments that North Korea would never give up its nuclear weapons. The CIA has “no idea” how to handle Pyongyang, the president said.

He also dismissed criticism about his three meetings with Mr. Kim — meetings many believe provided the North Korean dictator with legitimacy on the world stage. “It takes me two days. I met. I gave up nothing,” said the president, who likened North Korea’s attachment to its nuclear arsenal to somebody who is in love with a house and “they just can’t sell it.”

Sue Mi Terry, another former U.S. intelligence official focused on North Korea, suggested Thursday that the publication of the gushing letters could backfire.

“My immediate reaction to reading some of these letters was, ‘Uh-oh, Chairman Kim is not going to like this.’ It’s embarrassing, honestly, right?” Ms. Terry said during the webinar hosted by the think tank, where she is a senior fellow.

“If I’m [Mr. Kim], I would be mortified and embarrassed,” she added.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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