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Woodward Book Reveals Letters between Trump and Kim Jong-un

2020-09-17

ⓒ YONHAP News

Letters between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un were revealed in Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” published on September 15. The Washington Post journalist said that he obtained 27 letters, except the two that Trump had disclosed before.

The letters refer to those exchanged between the two leaders from April 2018 to August last year. Many analysts point out that revealing personal letters between the heads of state might be considered a diplomatic discourtesy. Here is political commentator Choi Young-il to explain.


It is very hard to find any precedent of such a surprise disclosure of confidential letters between leaders. Typically, personal letters between leaders are kept secret for more than 30 years. Those containing sensitive issues, in particular, are not open to the public. It is quite unconventional to reveal as many as 27 letters exchanged between Kim and Trump over the course of about two years. Bob Woodward, the Watergate reporter, recorded transcripts of interviews he had with Trump for his new book. It remains to be seen how this book will influence diplomatic relations of involved countries such as South Korea, North Korea and the U.S.


The letters show that Kim and Trump became close to each other quickly after they promised to hold their first meeting, but they became estranged after their brief encounter in the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom. Their letter exchanges reached a peak between their first summit in June 2018 and the second one in February 2019. What grabs our attention is that the North Korean leader highly praised President Trump in his letters.


Right after the first Trump-Kim summit in June 2018, Trump described their chemistry: “You meet a woman. In one second, you know whether or not it’s going to happen.” On a similar note, the expression “Your Excellency” appears as many as nine times in one of Kim’s letters. Kim also used such expressions as “highly respect your leadership,” “a great leader” and “write a new history.” The North Korean leader’s diplomatic courtship shows his efforts to curry favor with the American president. Of course, it is a strategically-calculated move.

The U.S. wanted North Korea to get rid of its nuclear weapons, while the North hoped that the U.S. would lift economic sanctions against it. With their respective expectations in mind, the two leaders were eager to exchange letters until their second summit in Hanoi. Woodward’s book describes these situations in detail.


Having suffered from the trauma of the failed summit in Hanoi in February 2019, Kim sent a letter to Trump in June that year. In the letter that Trump called “love letter,” Kim wrote that he believes the deep and special friendship between them will work as a magical force. He also expressed his strong commitment to “another chance,” namely, a third summit. And 20 days later, a surprise show took place in the form of their brief, dramatic encounter in Panmunjom. Later, Trump sent Kim photographs of their meeting.


As the South Korea-U.S. combined military drills continued, however, Kim sent a letter to Trump again to express his displeasure. Afterwards, their letter exchange became a rare event.


Although Trump promised to suspend the South Korea-U.S. military exercises at the first North Korea-U.S. summit in 2018, the Hanoi summit in 2019 broke down. Despite the Kim-Trump meeting in Panmunjom in June that year, South Korea and the U.S. pushed ahead with their combined military drills. In his letter sent to Trump, Kim Jong-un wrote, “I’m clearly offended and I do not want to hide this feeling from you. I am really, very offended…. I am immensely proud and honored that we have a relationship where I can send and receive such candid thoughts with you.”


Obviously, Kim was telling Trump how North Korea could trust the U.S. and give up its nuclear programs unless he fails to keep his promise. After all, North Korea defined Kim-Trump relations as personal ones, separate from the official nuclear negotiations between the two countries.


It is said that Trump warned Woodward not to reveal Kim’s letters after he learned that the journalist had obtained them. Trump made a phone call to Woodward in January this year and said, “You can’t mock Kim Jong-un. I don’t want to get in a nuclear war because you mocked him.”


As a leader, Trump will find it upsetting and uncomfortable to see Kim’s letters revealed through the book of a journalist. It is all the more so because there is still a long way to go before North Korea and the U.S. reach a compromise at their denuclearization talks. For Trump, he may lose face in front of the North Korean leader. Also, the disclosure of what he described as “love letters” may hold him up to ridicule. If the content of the letters is known to North Korean people, although the possibility is low, the dignity of their top leader might be damaged.


Of course, Kim will be extremely wary of that. Considering future North Korea-U.S. negotiations, the revelation of the letters may deal a blow to the U.S. The White House may have provided the North Korean leader with something to blame.


On September 10, Trump tweeted, “Kim Jong-un is in good health. Never underestimate him.” Trump has so far called Kim a difficult negotiating partner, in an apparent bid to show off his bargaining power. His recent tweeter message may indicate that his negotiation power is still strong, ahead of the presidential election.


The U.S. respects freedom of the press, so it can’t prevent a veteran journalist from publishing a book. Still, Trump finds it necessary to show Kim that he still trusts the North Korean leader. That’s why he posted a tweet praising Kim Jong-un as a healthy and strong leader. He wants to show that he doesn’t want to spoil his relationship with Kim because of the publication of the book.


Trump faces many difficulties domestically. For him, how to handle North Korea could be an important leverage to turn the situation around. With the upcoming presidential election in mind, he expresses his hope to keep his personal relationship with Kim intact.


It’s not the first time that the North Korean leader’s letter to Trump has been made public. Trump unveiled Kim’s letter on Twitter in July 2018, right after the first North Korea-U.S. summit. Amid the good diplomatic mood at the time, it did not draw any backlash from North Korea.


This time, however, North Korea might be upset because somebody else, not Trump, revealed its leader’s letters that appear to flatter Trump, amid the chilly bilateral relations. North Korea has yet to make any official response. Analysts speculate that Pyongyang continues with its strategy of “ignoring” the U.S.


If the North Korean leader directly mentions this issue and expresses discontent, North Korea-U.S. relations might be in jeopardy. An official statement by North Korean diplomatic authorities could also result in a serious situation. In fact, North Korea and its leader have every reason to get angry. But the North could use this as an opportunity to find fault with the U.S. and pressure Trump. In this respect, the disclosure of Kim’s letters may not necessarily affect bilateral relations negatively.


On the contrary, it could change the situation unexpectedly. For now, more focus is placed on the U.S. presidential election in November. Therefore, North Korea may not make any response until then.


Kim Jong-un has made a public appearance every third day this month alone to focus on taking care of public livelihoods. North Korea never yields an inch on the matter of “the highest dignity,” which refers to the top leader. Regarding the disclosure of his personal letters, we’ll have to wait and see whether North Korea will express discontent in any form or stick to its strategy of “ignoring” the U.S.

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