Has Kim Jong-un fooled us all, including Trump?
NORTH Korean leader Kim Jong-un has gone from ridiculed international pariah to smiling diplomat in the space of just months.
However analysts warn the West is being played and United States President Donald Trump is being manipulated into giving Kim exactly what he wants.
Just days after the historic inter-Korean summit, the first in more than a decade, questions remain around the most contentious agenda item of them all: denuclearisation.
It also puts the ball squarely in the court of Mr Trump, whose much-anticipated summit with Kim is just weeks away.
While calls grow for Mr Trump to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing Kim to the negotiating table, analysts suggest Kim is playing for time and appealing to the US President's vanity.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who made negotiating with the North a key goal, has called the for the US President to be awarded the prestigious prize.
"President Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize. What we need is only peace," Mr Moon told a meeting of senior secretaries.
The comments came as the South Korean leader deflected a question about whether he might win the award as one of his predecessors, Kim Dae-jung, did in 2000 after the first ever inter-Korean summit with then-leader Kim Jong-il.
The Koreas pledged to seek a formal end this year to the Korean War - a conflict that was halted in 1953 by an armistice and not a peace treaty, meaning the two sides are technically still at war. They also committed to eradicating nuclear weapons from the peninsula.
During a campaign-style rally in Michigan on Saturday, Mr Trump told supporters his critics used to say he would drag the world into nuclear war.
The US leader has been eager to play up his role in achieving a breakthrough with Pyongyang through his "maximum pressure" campaign involving tough rhetoric, stronger sanctions and diplomatic efforts to further isolate the regime.
Mr Trump's tone marks a huge change with the President only months ago calling his North Korean counterpart "Little Rocket Man".
Kim last year sent tensions soaring with a series of intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests.
During his maiden address to the United Nations in September, Mr Trump lashed out at Kim mocking him and escalating the war of words between the two.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho in turn branded Mr Trump "a mentally deranged person full of megalomania" and warned a strike against the US mainland was "inevitable".
Malcolm Davis, senior analyst in defence strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told news.com.au Kim is both opportunistic and manipulative by making easy concessions designed to entice Mr Trump to rush into a summit.
"He recognises he can play for time because his nuclear and missile technologies are sufficiently advanced that he can afford to offer a testing freeze for both," Dr Davis said.
"Plus the Punggye-ri (nuclear test) site suffered severe damage in the last test - whether other tunnels are operational is uncertain, but an offer to freeze testing can be reversed quickly if in fact they are operational."
While the inter-Korean summit offered many promises but little substance, Dr Davis said its apparent success made it harder for Mr Trump to say no to meeting Kim, adding that Mr Moon appears ready to rush towards a deal.
"They are pushing for peace and then denuclearisation," he said.
"So peace might be a peace treaty being signed, that would include lifting of sanctions, economic assistance to the North, security guarantees, and ultimately reduction or elimination of US forces and the lifting of the US nuclear umbrella to Korea. Then the North will denuclearise. Maybe."
While Mr Moon and Mr Trump may like the sound of a Nobel Peace Prize, the reality was "cooler heads will prevail" from within the US administration who will want concrete and meaningful steps towards real denuclearisation before further concessions are made.
"The US will insist on CVID - complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation - according to (National Security Adviser John) Bolton and the key challenge will be getting Trump to insist on that," Dr Davis said.
He said he remained sceptical that this diplomatic process is really going to lead to a peaceful outcome.
WINNING GAME PLAN
John Blaxland, Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies and director of ANU's Southeast Asia Institute, said it was clear Kim was playing a game by "appealing to Trump's extraordinary vanity".
He also said it is Kim who is largely driving the agenda.
"Most pundits agree that Kim's determination to refine his nuclear weapons and ICBM capabilities has raised the stakes to a level not witnessed at times of earlier moments of hope, when North Korea joined with others to talk about the prospects of peace and reconciliation," Prof Blaxland said.
"It is these raised stakes that have so captivated Trump's attention, driving him obsessively to focus on brinkmanship on the Korean Peninsula."
Prof Blaxland said Mr Trump's drive and determination is undoubtedly a factor in bringing the crisis to the cusp of a groundbreaking resolution of what has seemed an interminable conflict.
"He knows Kim plays with a weak hand. Other than in terms of its nuclear weapons and massed Army, North Korea is a basket case," he said.
"Kim also knows that Trump's threats of 'fire and fury' are more plausible under his administration than has been the case for generations. So both Trump and Kim seem to be capitalising on the extraordinary confluence of events."
However Prof Blaxland said it is Kim in the driving seat.
"Kim has driven the agenda, accelerating the weapons development programs, brushing off sanctions, stealing the limelight at the Winter Olympics, striking a yet to be fully disclosed bargain with China's President Xi Jinping and positioning himself as the linchpin and focal point for global aspirations with his summitry," he said.
"Mindful of the confluence of factors, big egos, grand ambitions and high stakes, South Korea's President has joined in the euphoria to effusively talk about President Trump meriting being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This is undoubtedly a move that will endear Moon to Trump and probably goes some way to explain why Moon made the statement.
"Moon has to carefully manage what Trump might do next, mindful of his earlier wariness about American commitments abroad."
Prof Blaxland said everyone needed to keep their feet firmly on the ground given the stakes are high and pointed out the best we could hope for is a de-escalation, a scaling back of tensions and a measured and considered path to incremental reconciliation.
New York-based Park Strategies senior vice president Sean King, an expert on Asian politics, stopped short of calling Kim clever but said he was cunning and evil.
While Mr Moon was playing to Mr Trump's ego, he didn't think Kim was doing that just yet and questioned Kim's intentions.
"Nobody really knows why Kim's reaching out now and whoever actually does know isn't talking," Mr King said.
"The rest of us, myself included, are all just guessing and theorising the best we can."
Mr King suggested four key scenarios as to why Kim was reaching out to the West including that he feels emboldened enough, now that he has ICBMs, to reach out and is in desperate need of sanctions being lifted.
He said Kim could be wanting to make some kind of symbolic splash given it was his country's 70th anniversary this year and went onto to suggest a fourth reason.
"He senses a rare opportunity, as he's been dealt the unique combination of a liberal South Korean president and a US president who openly questions America's alliances," he said.
"Kim could think now's his chance to split the US and South Korean alliance once for all."