US sizes up Kim ahead of possible nuclear summit

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 5/31/2018, 8:38 a.m.
While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's recent meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were billed primarily as diplomatic ...
A photo posted to Pompeo's official Twitter account showed the North Koreans dining on a meal of "steak, corn and cheese."

By Zachary Cohen, Barbara Starr and Jenna McLaughlin, CNN

(CNN) -- While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's recent meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were billed primarily as diplomatic missions, the face-to-face encounters have also served as valuable intelligence gathering opportunities that are helping shape US officials' understanding of the reclusive dictator and guide ongoing talks between the two countries.

A series of constantly updated US intelligence assessments have determined that Kim will come to the negotiating table with his own red lines revolving around a single calculation: How much, if any, of his nuclear weapons program does he give up while still assuring the survival of his regime and his singular position in power?

These intelligence assessments, largely led by the CIA's Korea Mission Center, are examining all issues that could impact Kim's thinking and approach to the negotiations, including the impact of US-backed economic development and how Kim can maintain the loyalty of his top military commanders. The issue of Kim's concern for his safety and survival was even addressed by President Donald Trump in public comments when he guaranteed Kim's safety if he agreed to denuclearize.

The US intelligence community has been working to understand what makes Kim tick since he took power in 2011 -- gathering details related to his psychological makeup, leadership style and personality in order to support the policymakers tasked with dealing with North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

And that effort has only been amplified in recent weeks as US officials continue to lay the groundwork for on-again, off-again talks between Kim and Trump in Singapore on June 12.

Despite Trump's threat last week to call off the summit, the White House has indicated that preparations are still under way.

Representatives from Washington and Pyongyang have been dispatched in recent days to conduct various meetings, and in his most significant gesture so far, Kim sent his former intelligence chief and close confidante Kim Yong Chol to New York to meet with Pompeo.

Even after Trump made his cancellation announcement, Pompeo has continued to work on preparations for a potential summit. Defense Secretary James Mattis has also continued to publicly emphasize diplomacy led by Pompeo.

Those familiar with Pompeo's thinking have said that his meeting with Kim Yong Chol will set some of the terms and agenda for a potential summit -- but most importantly Pompeo loyalists believe the meeting is a sign that he is the senior US official, short of the President, that Kim is willing to work with.

If Pompeo is included at the summit table, his role will include ensuring both Kim and Trump keep to the agenda and do not get unduly distracted by their rhetoric, one US official said.

"Secretary Pompeo has spent more time with the 'living God' than any other American ... (Kim) has been sheltered from foreign view very deliberately up until now," Nick Eberstadt, American Enterprise Institute scholar and adviser to National Bureau of Asian Research, told CNN.

While sources have relayed various rumors about Kim to intelligence officials over the years, Eberstadt said the US can be most confident in assessments regarding North Korea's "objectives because those haven't really changed between three generations of Kims."