Kim Jong-un is not a great traveler. Each of his trips abroad therefore represents an event. This Tuesday, September 12, the leader of North Korea arrived in Russia for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Leaving Pyongyang on Sunday evening aboard an armored train, his favorite means of transport, the dictator is making his first trip abroad since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is only the tenth time that he has officially left the country since the start of his reign in 2011. Le Figaro looks back on his latest trips.
Coming to power on December 17, 2011, Kim Jong-un waited more than six years to make his first diplomatic trip. Logically, it is to China, his main ally and benefactor, that he goes. On March 25, 2018, he reached Beijing, the capital, aboard his armored train, and held a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
On this occasion, the “supreme leader” spoke out for “the denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula. It also confirms the prospect of a summit with US President Donald Trump, after months of threats of war between the two countries over North Korea's nuclear program.
The image is historic. On April 27, Kim Jong-un meets South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Military Demarcation Line which divides the peninsula. The two men exchange a handshake. “I am happy to meet you,” says the South Korean leader to his smiling counterpart. On this occasion, Kim Jong-un became the first North Korean leader to cross the Concrete Demarcation Line since the Korean War (1950-1953).
The two heads of state then walked briefly to the North Korean side of the border before walking to the Peace House, a glass and concrete structure located in the southern part of the village of Panmunjom, where the signing the armistice. North Korea's atomic arsenal is high on the menu and Kim Jong-un hopes to strike "a bold deal to give all the Korean people and people who want peace a great gift."
Less than a month and a half after his first official visit to China, Kim Jong-un returns to his ally, this time with his personal plane, in the port city of Dalian. A surprise visit, a few weeks before a planned summit between the North Korean leader and American President Donald Trump. Kim Jong-un speaks at length with Chinese officials, attends an official banquet and appears alongside Xi Jinping during a walk by the sea. This meeting is widely publicized, to show the world the close relations between the two countries.
Here again, the sequence is historic. On June 12, President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un signed an agreement in Singapore, evoking a process of denuclearization of North Korea. This is the first time a sitting American president has met a North Korean leader and the future looks hopeful. The two men sealed their agreement with a handshake that went around the world.
Also read: North Korean nuclear power: five years later, why the handshake between Trump and Kim Jong-un has aged poorly
Five years later, the famous handshake seems like ancient history. Donald Trump has no longer been in power since 2020, and North Korea has carried out numerous short and medium range, as well as intercontinental, missile launches in recent years. The year 2022 even constituted a record in this area, with more than 80 tests recorded, including one of an intercontinental ballistic missile. The promises seen in 2018 have evaporated.
New demonstration of friendship. For the third time in less than three months, Kim Jong-un goes to China to show his understanding with his precious neighbor. The two countries boast of their “unity” while Kim Jong-un plays a real balancing act, aiming to develop peaceful relations with the United States while preserving his historic ties with China.
Like Washington, Beijing hopes to see a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. But China fears that the US-North Korean rapprochement will come at its expense, a scenario that would threaten its economic and security interests in the region. The two-day visit was intended to send a clear message: No, Pyongyang will not neglect Chinese interests, even in the event of a diplomatic honeymoon with the US president.
With a view to a second meeting with Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un is traveling to China for the fourth (and to date last) time, to meet Xi Jinping. On this occasion, the two leaders held more in-depth discussions than ever before on security issues, according to comments at the time. In particular, they agreed to jointly study and coordinate “the management of the situation on the Korean peninsula and the negotiations on denuclearization in particular.”
Kim Jong-un arrives in Hanoi to meet Donald Trump for a second time. The hope of a further step towards North Korean denuclearization is then on everyone's minds. But the two countries are unable to agree, with the United States demanding complete, verified and irreversible denuclearization, and North Korea requiring the total abandonment of sanctions against it. This is the very heart of the overall failure of these discussions: during their three meetings, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un only made promises. No commitment was signed.
Ultimately, only one of the points will be respected, the least restrictive: the restitution of dozens of remains of American soldiers who died during the Korean War (1950-1953). The other three - new US-North Korea relations, commitment to building a lasting peace regime on the Korean Peninsula and complete denuclearization of North Korea - remain unanswered. On the contrary, the Pyongyang regime resumed its missile tests in May 2019, the first since November 2017, which Trump tried as best he could to minimize.
Eight years later, Kim Jong-un takes over from his father: arriving in Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East, still aboard his armored train, the North Korean leader meets his Russian counterpart for the first time. The last summit between the two countries took place in 2011, between Kim Jong-il and Dmitri Medvedev. “Thank you for coming,” says Vladimir Putin as he welcomes Kim Jong-un.
Also read: Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin: the explosive alliance of pariahs
For several hours, the two leaders discussed the denuclearization of North Korea and addressed Washington's policy and sanctions, with the Russian president believing that the Pyongyang regime needed international security guarantees. By coming to Russia, just a few weeks after the failed meeting with Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un wishes to demonstrate that the United States is not the only power with sufficient influence to initiate negotiations with Pyongyang on its nuclear program.
An appointment was made at the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. On June 30, President Donald Trump became the first American president to cross the North Korean border, receiving a warm welcome from Kim Jong-un. It was through Twitter, his favorite means of communication until his ban, that the American president made an impromptu meeting with the North Korean leader.
On this occasion, Donald Trump invites his counterpart to visit the United States. “It will happen one day or another,” he promised to the press. But this meeting, highly symbolic, will not be followed by effects, Joe Biden taking the side of severity vis-à-vis North Korea as soon as he comes to power.