Dry wit. Disarming humility. An appreciation for wiggle room, and lots of it.
After six years of self-imposed isolation from the world stage, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has demonstrated a surprisingly well stocked toolbox of negotiating tactics in high-stakes summits with the presidents of South Korea and China over the past two months.
What might he try out in Tuesday’s summit with President Donald Trump?
Here’s a quick playbook of some of the tactics Kim might be expected to lean on and how they might play out when he sits down for his highest-stakes meeting yet.
The element of surprise
Kim wasted no time in unleashing this one on South Korean President Moon Jae-in when they met for the first time two months ago in the Demilitarized Zone that divides their two countries.
After the two shook hands across the dividing line and Kim stepped across into the South, as scripted, he took Moon’s hand and walked him back over the line and into the North. The seemingly simple, impromptu act was filled with symbolism and widely welcomed in the South as a sign of his desire for Korean unity.
Kim also wowed the South Koreans with his seemingly unexpected willingness to sit and have a leisurely chat with Moon as the two took a stroll through the DMZ.
His meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, had a strong element of surprise to them as well, at least to the outside world. Trump has suggested even he didn’t know ahead of time about the second one, and expressed frustration over whether Xi might have tried to use that meeting to throw a monkey wrench into the Singapore meeting.
The power of preparation
North Korean negotiators do their homework. And they stay doggedly on message.
Trump can expect Kim to be well informed and well versed in his talking points. He will almost certainly know more about the United States and its history than Trump will know about North Korea.
He will, in other words, have a strong point of view and an ideology that supports it. He will go into the meeting well briefed and keenly aware of the needs and fears of the vested interests within the regime, whose support he literally can’t live without. Whatever strategy he takes with Trump will undoubtedly have been polished carefully before their first handshake.
Kim is, of course, the boss. As White House officials have stressed, he has leeway to work off the cuff. Spur-of-the-moment deals can be made. Preparation, however, will be the foundation underneath whatever Kim chooses to do. And, considering Trump’s reported impatience with homework assignments, Pyongyang may well be banking on it being Kim’s biggest advantage.
Keep them guessing
Ambiguity can be awesome. Expect Kim to deploy it often.
The summit in Singapore is only happening because no one has really pinned Kim down on what he means by the topic at the very center of it all — denuclearization.
A pessimistic reading of Pyongyang’s statements to date could suggest that far from being ready to talk about handing his nuclear arsenal over to Trump, Kim has been telling the world that he’s intent on keeping them until all the nuclear powers give theirs up, too.
The real key to understanding North Korean negotiations is to simply accept that they will try to maintain enough wiggle room to seem like they are promising to do something that they may at a later date decide not to do at all. That’s not being dishonest, or breaking promises. It’s just being smart. Especially if you can coax your negotiation partner into actually promising something they can’t later deny or back out of.
Like getting the U.S. president to green light a one-on-one summit meeting, as an equal.
Use your charisma
This is another technique Kim put to good use in his meetings with South Korea’s Moon.
By being generous with his smile, speaking in a respectful manner to Moon, bringing along his wife and just generally acting like a fellow human being — not a psychopathic monster as he is so often portrayed by the South Korean media — Kim has gone a long way in just two summits toward swaying public opinion in the South in his favor.
And that’s despite the fact that he still has thousands of artillery units ready to pulverize Seoul whenever he chooses.
Kim is also a bone fide, A-list celebrity of the kind that can drive ratings into the stratosphere. That buys a lot of credibility with Trump’s reality show host alter ego.
And who knows? With these two oversize personalities topping the bill, the Kim and Trump show could be, well, huge.