- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is FP's Asia editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington, D.C. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, the BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
On Oct. 28, Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj arrived in Pyongyang for a four day trip, the first known visit of a head of state to North Korea since Kim Jong Un took power in December 2011. But while Elbegdorj spent his days “meeting various officials and zipping around to Kim Il Sung University, a Pyongyang theater, the Munsu water fun park, the border with South Korea and Kim family mausoleum, among other places,” according to The Wall Street Journal, he never met the man himself. Kim, who is not known to have left North Korea since assuming the presidency, has kept up an unbroken record of never having a meeting with another head of state. (Perhaps he’s met with another head of state — if so, the meeting has remained private.)
Becoming the first head of state to visit North Korea made sense from a Mongolian perspective, said Julian Dierkes, a Mongolia expert at the University of British Columbia. Sandwiched between China and Russia, Mongolia heeds to a “third neighbor policy:” its trying to expand its relationship with countries outside those countries orbits, like the United States, several European nations, and Japan. There’s a sense in Mongolia, Dierkes says, that the country’s relatively close relationship could be valuable in its dealings with other regional powers.
Elbegdorj probably expected to meet with Kim on his visit. But then for some reason, Kim declined. Perhaps he’s saving up for a higher profile target, like a (highly improbable) meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, or an even unlikelier phone call from U.S. President Barack Obama — which Dennis Rodman, who has met with Kim twice, says the leader wants. Kim’s father, the reclusive President Kim Jong I, met with world leaders including then South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun and Russian President Vladimir Putin, among others. Kim’s grandfather, the gregarious President Kim Il Sung, met with dozens of world leaders during his 45 years in power.
But Kim appears to be the only serving head of state to never have met with another foreign leader. Mullah Omar, the titular leader of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, doesn’t seem to have met with any foreign heads of state while in office, either –but I can’t think of any other 20th century leaders who have done so.
Am I missing anyone? Let me know in the comments.