Deciphering Kim Jong Un's Motives

The Game He's Trying to Play

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency, September 22, 2017. KCNA via Reuters

On Tuesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un abruptly canceled a forthcoming summit with South Korea and threatened to pull out of the June 12 talks with U.S. President Donald Trump, claiming that ongoing U.S.-South Korean drills were a “provocation.” Trump has been no less volatile, tweeting days before that he could still call off the meeting at the very last moment. But what Kim’s move reveals is a broader strategy at work. In the lead-up to the Singapore summit, should it still take place, Trump may be preparing for the wrong game: a two-player round of checkers when Kim is steeling for a multiplayer two-board chess match. On one board will be the future of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs, what Trump came to negotiate. On the other will be what Kim and the other participants know is also crucially at stake: the future of geopolitics in northeast Asia. How can the president ensure a favorable outcome in this complicated chess match?

Trump should take a cue from President Richard Nixon. In preparing for his historic meeting with the Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1972, Nixon made sure he understood how to play the game by thinking about his opponent’s aims. On a piece of paper, he outlined what Mao wanted, laid them out against the goals of the United States, and then mapped out areas of potential agreement. Trump should do the same, thinking strategically about the motivations of all the summit’s key players: North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. So what is it, then, that they really want?


In recent weeks, Kim has expressed his willingness to pursue “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” a promise that in the past has meant only that Pyongyang would pledge to eliminate nuclear weapons just as the United States did under Article VI of the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty. This essentially means never denuclearizing. The North has always argued that if the United States

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