Stepping toward U.S. President Donald Trump for a handshake Tuesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un strived not to betray any anxiety in the apparent hopes of projecting an image as an equal and legitimate head of state.
Having strengthened his hand with nuclear arms and long-range missiles, Kim, relatively new to the game, entered a high-stakes showdown with the unorthodox leader of the world's superpower, who threatened just last year to rain down "fire and fury" on the communist regime.
For the young leader, the summit was more than just a handshake or photo opportunity. It was about his legitimacy, regime survival without recourse to nukes and much-needed economic resuscitation following years of biting sanctions, analysts said.
"It was not that easy of a road all the way up here," Kim, with a faint smile, told Trump. "We have a past that is holding us down and wrong prejudices and practices that at times covered our eyes and ears, but we overcame everything to come this far."
Indeed, the road to the unprecedented summit between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean ruler was bumpy. The summit was on the verge of collapse last month after Trump abruptly called it off, citing "open hostility" from Pyongyang. But it was later put back on track following the North's conciliatory gesture and the South's mediation.
The entire world, including South Korea, watched the televised rendezvous with bated breath, hoping it would carry a historic meaning -- the start of a long-awaited process to end the decadeslong enmity between the U.S. and the North.
"This is a chance to see whether one of the unfinished pieces of business of the Cold War, the Korean War of 1950-53, might finally be settled," Rana Mitter, a British historian, told Yonhap News Agency. "A successful outcome could provide a major change to the post-1945 order in Asia."
The summit is also a crucial undertaking for Kim as it is something his two late predecessors -- his grandfather and national founder Kim Il-sung and father Kim Jong-un -- failed to achieve due in large part to deep-seated distrust over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.
To the domestic audience, the summit is part of Kim's efforts to deliver on his earlier pledge to keep his people from having to "tighten your belt." Amid crippling sanctions that followed the North's stepped-up nuclear development, that pledge has increasingly become far-fetched.
"Tackling the economic challenge is the last task that the Kim family has failed to address over the last three generations -- a reason why Kim has recently sought to improve ties with the outside world and pursue the economic development," said Koh Yoo-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.
Shoring up the debilitated economy remains the only unfinished part of the three-pronged vision to become an "economically, ideologically and militarily strong" nation. The North claims it has already become a powerful nation ideologically with its ideology of "juche," or self-reliance, and militarily with the "nuclear button" on Kim's desk.
This year also marks the third year of Kim's ambitious five-year economic development scheme, which many say could get bogged down should he continue to dismiss calls to open up and maintain his provocative streak.
"The North has apparently judged that the space of strategic opportunities has emerged this year, and that if it fails to grab them this year, it would be difficult to complete the economic development scheme," said Kim Yeon-su, a North Korea expert at Korea National Defense University.
Beyond the economic cause, Tuesday's summit was a rare chance for Kim to position himself as a leader of a "normal state conducting normal diplomacy" and refresh his image associated with his regime's past provocations, woeful human rights records, economic poverty and international isolation to name a few, analysts said.
This purpose would also help cement public support within the reclusive country.
"The summit is very important as it will be highly publicized through the North's state media like the Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the North's ruling Workers' Party," said Chin Hee-gwan, a professor of unification studies at Inje University.
"As the North Koreans were very excited about the inter-Korean summits (in April and May), the summit with Trump, should it result in the normalization of bilateral ties, could lead to greater public support for Kim." (yonhap)