Asia Pacific / Politics

Kim Jong Un receives letter from Trump, saying he will 'seriously contemplate' its 'interesting content'

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has received an “excellent” letter from U.S. President Donald Trump, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Sunday, just days before Trump travels to Asia for the Group of 20 summit in Osaka.

Kim “said with satisfaction that the letter is of excellent content,” KCNA said in a brief dispatch without revealing any details, including when or how the “personal letter” was delivered.

“Appreciating the political judging faculty and extraordinary courage of President Trump, Kim Jong Un said that he would seriously contemplate the interesting content,” the report said.

The front page of the North’s Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, carried a photo of Kim holding Trump’s letter with both hands as he read it in his office.

The White House and State Department did not respond to a question about whether Trump had sent a letter to Kim. But South Korea’s presidential Blue House said it was aware of the correspondence through its communications with Washington.

“The government views it as positive in that the momentum of dialogue between the North and the U.S. is being maintained through top-level letter exchanges,” the Blue House said, according to media reports.

The two leaders have exchanged correspondence in recent months, with Trump boasting of a “beautiful” letter he received on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the pair’s first-ever summit in Singapore.

Speaking about that letter earlier this month, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said there was “a very interesting part that President Trump did not announce.”

Following the Singapore summit, and another one in Hanoi in February, the talks on eliminating the North’s nuclear arsenal have hit a wall due to major differences over the scope of its denuclearization and potential sanctions relief by the United States.

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun last week characterized Washington’s position by saying that “the door is wide open” for negotiations with Pyongyang, while admitting that diplomacy has been in a “holding pattern.”

News of the letter also comes in the wake of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s first-ever visit as president to North Korea.

On Thursday, Kim, who met Xi in Pyongyang, said that his country is waiting for a desired response to kick-start the stalled nuclear talks with the U.S.

“North Korea would like to remain patient, but it hopes the relevant party will meet halfway with North Korea to explore resolution plans that accommodate each other’s reasonable concerns,” Kim said, according to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.

Kim’s meeting with Xi, together with the correspondence with Trump, has raised expectations that the deadlock might soon be broken.

While the content of the letter delivered to Kim was unclear, speculation has grown that the North Korean leader may have asked Xi to deliver a message on denuclearization to Trump at this week’s G20 summit. Trump also plans to visit Seoul after the G20 wraps up.

Nathan Hunt, an independent image analyst who focuses on the monitoring and modeling of North Korean weapons systems, examined the picture of Kim published with Sunday’s report appearing to show him looking at the letter.

He determined that the letter appeared to have a White House watermark and was dated June 12, 2019 — the one-year anniversary of the first Kim-Trump summit in Singapore. Hunt also said that several lines toward end of the letter had been underlined, possibly indicating their importance. It was unclear if Trump or Kim had underlined the section, but the marks, next to the president’s signature, looked to have been written in the same ink.

The letter provoked a flurry of speculation online among North Korea watchers.

“Did Trump indicate a willingness to moderate the US negotiating position (good)? Or did Trump unknowingly assent to something Kim said about doing so in his own letter and now Kim thinks Trump is on board (bad)?” Vipin Narang, a North Korea expert and professor of international relations at MIT, wrote on Twitter.

David Kim, a research analyst at the Stimson Center think tank, said the letter had “serious markings, I assume from Trump.”

“Something is up as Trump seems to have struck the right chord” with Kim, the former State Department nonproliferation and East Asia desk official wrote on Twitter.

News of the letter came after former Deputy Ambassador to the United Kingdom Thae Yong Ho, one of the highest-ranking North Korean diplomats to defect in years, said last week that Kim was likely looking to offer some kind of compromise on his country’s nuclear facilities to set up a third summit with Trump.

The White House has repeatedly said that Pyongyang must abandon its nuclear weapons program before international sanctions are lifted. The North, however, is seeking an incremental approach in which a step toward its denuclearization would be matched by a concession from the U.S., namely eased economic sanctions.

China backs what it calls a “suspension for suspension” proposal.

Thae told a news conference in Tokyo on Thursday that Kim may ask Xi to act “as a kind of mediator at the G20” to convey directly to Trump a fresh offer on his nuclear weapons program, a demand that the U.S. president himself said he has insisted on — the closure of five uranium enrichment sites believed to exist in the North.

Trump said in an interview in May that Kim had wanted to remove only one or two of the five nuclear sites during their Hanoi summit, a deal-breaker for the U.S. president.

“Kim Jong Un may open or he may abandon those five nuclear uranium enrichment facilities,” Thae said. “And if President Trump accepts this new offer from Kim Jong Un and makes any kind of deal, then Kim Jong Un can avoid the discussion of already-made nuclear missiles.”

Such an agreement, which would let the North keep its current arsenal, would eventually confer upon the country de facto, if not outright, status as a nuclear power, he said.

“If Kim Jong Un succeeds in convincing President Trump to make a deal on past North Korean nuclear facilities, and succeeds in keeping the current nuclear missiles (he possesses) for another few years, then it would mean … that North Korea can be accepted as a new nuclear state in this region,” Thae said.

“That is the basic, I think, game plan for North Korea,” he added.