Kim Jong Un, the master of short, unannounced mystery trips, can taken the plunge and engage in a high-publicity, long-distance meting away from the Hermit Kingdom.
“It’s a long way to Tipperary, it’s a long way to go,” went the lyrics of the famous First World War tune. Well, it is a much longer way from Pyongyang to the Southeast Asian city state of Singapore than it was from the battlefields of France to the Irish countryside.
The proposed Singapore summit will be precedent setting in many ways. But it will also be unprecedented in representing the furthest travel afield for a North Korean Kim family ruling member since the long-ago days of Kim’s grandfather, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung.
Grandfather Kim, unlike his skittish son Kim Jong Il, had such immense prestige and such an iron grip on power that he globe-trotted with little concern for his safety or over stability back home.
In March 1949 Kim Il Sung traveled to Moscow, just months after the establishment of the DPRK, to hold consultations with Stalin – which ultimately led to the greenlight for the invasion of South Korea a year later.
Kim also held a number of meetings with China’s Mao Zedong in Beijing from the 1950s through 1975, the year before Mao’s death. The elder Kim thus adeptly developed a balancing act between the two great Communist powers in the Cold War era, playing the Sino-Soviet rivalry for Pyongyang’s benefit.
But, unlike his son, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung did not restrict his travel to the Soviet Union and China alone. In 1956 Kim made a visit to his staunch socialist ally East Germany. In 1961 the elder Kim attended a Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) meeting in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Belgrade saw the beginning of “a beautiful friendship” with Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk which included providing the Prince with a safe haven – and a palace – after Sihanouk was overthrown in a 1970 coup d’état.
A contingent of North Korean body guards was put at the Prince’s disposal as well. Just a few years later (1965) the Great Leader made his own trip to Southeast Asia, famously attending the tenth anniversary of the 1955 Bandung Conference, the “first large-scale Asian-African Conference” in history, in Indonesia. .
Another friendship formed by international travel was Kim Il Sung’s close socialist fraternal ties to Romania’s Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu. Kim reciprocated Ceausescu’s visit to North Korea in 1971 (where the Romanian leader was reportedly inspired by the Kim family cult to introduce a European Marxist version) by traveling to Romania in 1974 and 1975.
Kim Il Sung made his own extensive train trip to socialist allies in 1974, visiting China, the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania. . Kim’s next 1975 globe-trotting trip included Romania, Bulgaria, the former Yugoslavia and the African states of Algeria and Mauritania as well – the only travel ever made by a Kim family ruling member to countries outside the socialist bloc or Asia. Ceausescu made a return visit to see his friend in Pyongyang in 1978.
Another odd couple partner of Kim Il Sung was Malta’s leftist-leaning Prime Minister Dom Mintoff who, according to Maltese media sources, secretly hosted the Great Leader’s son and heir apparent Kim Jong Il on the island for a period of time in the 1970s ostensibly as a secret envoy and so that Kim Jong Il could learn conversational English in the former British Crown Colony.
Mintoff was warmly thanked by Kim Il Sung in a 1982 red carpet visit to Pyongyang where he was reportedly entertained by a perfectly synchronized North Korean dance troupe. It is not clear how the airplane-phobic Kim Jong Il managed to travel to that Mediterranean island nation. Kim Il Sung reportedly made a final trip to Yangzhou China to hold talks with China’s new post-Tiananmen Square leader Jiang Zemin in 1991.
TURN FOR THE WORST
While Kim Il Sung ruled over a fairly prosperous nation, whose GDP was greater than that of South Korea until the 1970s, his son, Kim Jong Il, inherited in 1994 a regime soon to be plagued by the Great Famine of the mid-nineteen nineties.
Even with his newly proclaimed “songgun” (military first) strategy of seeking to appease a possibly restless military, Kim Jong Il, noted also for his fear of flying, did not apparently have the confidence or desire to travel as far afield as his globe-trotting parent. Kim stayed relatively close to home during his seventeen years in power, visiting only North Korea’s neighboring benefactors, China and Russia. He never repeated his “it’s a long way” journey to any place as far from Pyongyang as Malta.
Aidan Foster-Carter in a May 23, 2011 article for the blog site 38 North, titled “Chat-to-China” Choo Choo: Kim Rides the Rails Again,” reported that Kim Jong Il had made eight rail trips to China “and that’s just the ones we get told about…eventually. Very likely there have been other secret trips as well, especially in earlier years when his father Kim Il Sung was alive.”
Kim Jong Il, noted also for his fear of flying, did not apparently have the confidence or desire to travel as far afield as his globe-trotting parent
Foster-Carter records a first trip in June of 1983 by “the youngish Kim Jong Il 42 or maybe 43, (so not quite so callow a youth as Kim Jong Un now) who was the dauphin in waiting.”
Kim Jong Il’s itinerary included the Shenzhen free trade zone and his host was none other than the venerable Deng Xiao-ping whose famous advice on economic reform was “it doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.” Beijing even back then was seeking to nudge North Korea toward economic opening.
Kim Jong Il made several trips to China
The intervening years saw the end of the Cold War, the death of Kim Il Sung, the dissolution of North Korea’s other major patron, the Soviet Union, Beijing’s diplomatic recognition of Seoul, and the Great Famine in North Korea.
So it would not be, as Foster-Carter points out, until May of 2000 before Kim Jong Il’s train crossed the border into China again – a secret visit which, like his son Kim Jong Un’s recent sojourns to China, was only announced after it was over.
In January 2001, Kim visited the vibrant Shanghai skyline and stock exchange, as Beijing continued its patient but largely frustrated pursuit of economic reform with its North Korean ally. Kim Jong Il’s fifth trip in January 2006 included a further dose of Chinese economic reform when he again visited not only the now dazzling Shenzhen but the Zhuhai Special Economic Zone near the former Portuguese colony of Macau.
Three other trips followed – a reportedly disastrous visit in May 2010 followed by trips in August 2010 and then in May 2011 that, against standard Pyongyang protocol, was publicly revealed while Kim Jong Il was still in China. There were unconfirmed reports that Kim Jong Il, who had suffered a stroke in 2008, had his heir apparent Kim Jong Un accompany him on one of these last trips to China in order to introduce him to Beijing’s leadership. Kim Jong Il died in December 2011 with Kim Jong Un assuming power.
The most infamous of all Kim Jong Il’s magical mystery tours to China occurred during his fourth visit in April 2004 when a massive explosion occurred at the train station in the border town of Ryongchon in North Korea reportedly only hours after Kim’s train had passed through on his return from China.
Reports at the time indicated that a number of Syrian citizens carrying nuclear materials related to a North Korea-Syria weapons deal were killed in the explosion. Unconfirmed speculation even suggested a possible plot to assassinate Kim Jong Il. North Korean defector Thae Yong-ho has reported that Kim ordered the execution of several transportation officials as a result of the disaster.
Kim Jong Il also took the train – fear of flying – on a nine-day long trans-Siberian trip to Moscow in 2001 to meet with the then new Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin sought a warming of relations with the old Cold War North Korean ally, after the presidency of Boris Yeltsin who had shunned Pyongyang while seeking diplomatic and closer economic relations with rival South Korea.
Yeltsin had even turned over documents from the former Soviet Archives to visiting South Korean President Kim Young Sam in 1994 which demonstrated Stalin and Kim Il Sung’s intrigues prior to the North Korean invasion of 1950. Putin had previously stopped in Pyongyang en route to Japan to mend fences with Kim Jong Il in July 2000. Kim returned in 2002 to meet with his new buddy Putin in Vladivostok.
A third train trip described by Associated Press in August 2011 as “a fun trip” across Siberia took place to meet with then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a military garrison outside Ulan-Ude – “some 3,000 miles east of Moscow.” Within four months the Dear Leader would be dead.
Kim Jong Un, like his father Kim Jong Il in his first rocky years of rule during the Great Famine, has hesitated to go far afield from his Pyongyang power base as he presumably consolidates his iron grip. Kim has displayed a degree of insecurity about leaving his homeland – even though he lived abroad in Switzerland as a youth.
In 2015, after sending an advance team to Moscow to discuss the Young General’s attendance at Putin’s planned 70th anniversary celebrations commemorating the end of World War II in May of that year, Kim famously backed out of the visit at the last moment. Reportedly jealous of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s close relations with former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Kim spurned Moscow and reportedly infuriated the Confucian-conscious Beijing leadership by blatantly disrespecting his Chinese elders.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping thus decided to overfly his North Korean ally in July 2014 with a visit to Seoul that Time magazine said demonstrated that “South Korea is a good neighbor. North Korea not so much. That’s the message China sent this week as President Xi Jinping stopped by Seoul for a two-day visit. It is the first time a Chinese leader chose to visit South Korea before meeting with the Kim clan first.” Kim Jong Un reportedly responded to the slight by viewing target practice at a military base which included drawings of pandas – symbols of China – as targets.
So when Kim Jong Un suddenly showed up in Beijing in March on a secret trip – after being consistently snubbed by the Chinese leadership during his over six year rule — in his first trip outside the country as head of North Korea it was definitely big news.
Traditional Chinese attitudes toward bordering former tributary states like Korea reflect a mentality of what the Koreans refer to as “sadaejuui” – “serve the great” or more crudely “flunkeyism – as in the old days when the kings of Korea sent annual tributary missions to Beijing to crawl and kowtow before the Chinese Emperor while offering appropriate gifts. This time, however, was not “sadaejuui” but more a reflection of “you scratch my back and I will scratch yours.”
The fact, however, that Kim Jong Un has left his hermit kingdom and travelled such a great distance for a number of days indicates a new level of confidence
The late March meeting took place after President Trump earlier in March had announced that he had accepted an invitation to meet with the North Korean leader. Beijing obviously wished to ensure that its own interests in the Korean peninsula were not minimized by Washington-Pyongyang diplomacy while Kim apparently wished to demonstrate that his only remaining ally had his back.
A second brief meeting took place in early May between the pair in the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian. Vladimir Putin, wishing to get into the act of the hot new topic of North Korean diplomacy, has now reportedly invited Kim Jong Un to Russia in September.
So the trip to Singapore, where North Korea’s proverbial “frog in the well” Kim Jong Un will emerge from his dark hiding spot to meet with the flamboyant American President is certainly a historic turn of events. Whatever happens, it will make world headlines – giving Kim Jong Un the international recognition he craves and Donald Trump the publicity he relishes.
Details like who will pay for the North Korean delegation’s hotel stay have to be worked out – hopefully no “pay-to-play” behind-the-scenes deals like the infamous 2000 summit between the South Korean and North Korean leaders.
The fact, however, that Kim Jong Un has left his hermit kingdom and travelled such a great distance for a number of days indicates a new level of confidence. The Express newspaper also reported that “North Korea leader Kim Jong Un is consolidating his power at home by purging critical figures from the military in preparation for his meeting with Donald Trump next week.”
The other potential concern could be fear of assassination – Kim had his half-brother murdered in neighboring Malaysia just last year. This, however, should be minimized by the excellent Singaporean security protection and the isolated off-shore location of the meeting site.
Whatever further twists and turns come out of the meeting of the world’s number one odd couple, this is for certain: a successful Singapore summit and safe return to Pyongyang will leave no doubt that Kim Jong Un now holds an iron grip over North Korea.
And, secondly, it will demonstrate the fact that Kim can cultivate contacts of world stature – in this case the American President – as his grandfather used international travel to cultivate leaders like Stalin, Mao Zedong, Sihanouk, Ceausescu and Mintoff.
That’s a great improvement over just hanging out with basketball bad boy Dennis Rodman as your only foreign friend.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Singaporean Ministry of Culture
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