Kim Jong-un’s Image Shift: From Nuclear Madman to Skillful Leader

How did North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, go from being an international pariah to a smiling diplomat in a matter of a few months?

SEOUL, South Korea — He ordered his uncle executed and half brother assassinated. He spent millions developing and testing a hydrogen bomb and intercontinental ballistic missiles as his people suffered severe food shortages. He exchanged threats of nuclear annihilation with President Trump, calling the American leader a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”

That was last year’s image.

In more recent months, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has achieved one of the most striking transformations in modern diplomacy.

The man described by critics as a murderous dictator and nuclear lunatic has held hands and had heart-to-heart talks with South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, who has encouraged and abetted Mr. Kim’s makeover.

Mr. Kim has enticed South Korea and the United States into negotiations by dangling the possibility of denuclearizing his country. His popularity has surged in polls in South Korea as he prepares to become the first North Korean leader to meet a sitting American president.

With a dazzle of diplomatic initiatives in the run-up to his historic June 12 summit meeting with Mr. Trump in Singapore, Mr. Kim has effectively redefined himself. Some South Koreans now see him as more reliable than Mr. Trump despite the decades-long alliance between their country and the United States.

Mr. Kim’s enhanced standing among South Koreans was crystallized by recent images of him walking in the woods with Mr. Moon, and on a beach with President Xi Jinping of China discussing North Korea’s nuclear program.

The optics contrasted with what many South Koreans view as Mr. Trump’s scattershot diplomacy, in which he abruptly canceled the Singapore summit meeting, then reversed himself after Mr. Kim authorized a calm statement offering Mr. Trump “time and opportunity” to change his mind. (On Wednesday, one of the president’s lawyers, Rudolph W. Giuliani, said that Mr. Kim “got back on his hands and knees and begged” for the meeting to be rescheduled.)

Credit...Photo photo

Despite the image change, Mr. Kim is unlikely to surrender his nuclear weapons anytime soon, or ease the grip of his repressive regime. But he has proved to be a skilled — some might say beguiling — strategist, driving events on the Korean Peninsula and showing a willingness to recalibrate.

“Once Kim Jong-un decided to improve ties with South Korea and the United States, he knew he could not do so with his image as a repressive tyrant,” said Kang Dong-wan, an expert on North Korea’s “image politics” at Dong-A University in Busan, South Korea. “He is creating a new portrait of him abroad as the leader of a normal country.”

In the West, Mr. Kim, 34, has often been caricatured as a chubby child toying with nuclear missiles. Mr. Trump, more than twice his age, has called Mr. Kim “short and fat,” a “sick puppy” and a “little rocket man.”

But when Mr. Trump meets Mr. Kim, the American leader will be dealing with the ruler of a totalitarian regime adept at political theatrics to bolster Mr. Kim’s charisma at home and advance his agenda abroad.

“The reason the world pays attention to him is not just because he has a few nuclear weapons, but more because of his image as a leader with mystical power, his absolute control over a highly consolidated, regimented and disciplined country,” said Chung Byung-ho, an anthropologist at Hanyang University in South Korea, who examined the role of theatrics in North Korean politics in a book he wrote with another scholar.

Whatever his true personality, Mr. Kim has found an avid partner in advancing his new image: Mr. Moon.

Since taking office a year ago, Mr. Moon has exhorted Mr. Trump to test the idea that Mr. Kim was a reasonable leader ready to bargain away his nuclear weapons for the right incentives, such as normalized ties and security assurances from the United States. It seems to have worked: Mr. Trump has recently changed his public appraisals of the North Korean leader, calling him “smart and gracious” and “very honorable.”

Mr. Kim started his image makeover this year by reaching out to South Korea, which was eager to play intermediary between North Korea and the United States after a year in which the countries appeared to verge on war. In a New Year’s Day speech, Mr. Kim offered to send athletes, cheerleaders and political emissaries to South Korea during its Winter Olympics.

Then, he whetted Washington’s appetite for negotiations by announcing a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, closing North Korea’s only known nuclear test site and releasing three American prisoners. He also appeared to have hedged his bets by meeting twice with Mr. Xi, mending frayed ties with an old ally whose protection he needed as he entered delicate negotiations with Washington.

The diplomatic outreach was a sharp departure from North Korea’s history of rhetorical bombast, chest-thumping theatrics, military parades and mass rallies, which have fed the country’s image as an international pariah.

Mr. Kim’s image reinvention was skillfully staged with the help of Mr. Moon’s government, which made sure every detail of the leaders’ April 27 summit meeting was steeped in potent symbols dear to both Koreas: respect, ethnic unity and eventual Korean reunification.

For the meeting held at the “truce village” of Panmunjom on the inter-Korean border, Mr. Moon’s government redecorated a conference building, installing paintings of famous mountains and waterfalls that reminded people in both Koreas of their shared heritage before their peninsula was divided by foreign powers at the end of World War II.

“We packed each piece of furniture and each painting with a story,” said Koh Min-jeong, a spokeswoman for Mr. Moon.

During a break from their talks, Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon ambled off for a walk through the woods of Panmunjom, with cameras broadcasting their outing live around the world.

But nothing softened Mr. Kim’s image like the moment when he arrived at the border to meet with Mr. Moon. At Mr. Kim’s suggestion, Mr. Moon stepped across the border into the North for 10 seconds. Then Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon walked back across to the South for their meeting, holding hands, an encounter that transfixed television viewers in South Korea.

“That single gesture went beyond political language,” said Mr. Chung, the anthropologist. “The theatrics conveyed messages of trust that language alone could not.”

The summit meeting mainly rehashed old inter-Korean agreements that had never been kept, producing only a vaguely worded commitment to denuclearization and peace. But the images made the event a success, providing momentum for warmed ties between the two countries and redefining Mr. Kim in the eyes of many South Koreans.

The next morning, a South Korean newspaper filled its front and back pages with a photograph showing Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim crossing the border hand in hand. Mr. Kim, formerly vilified as the region’s most dangerous leader, was considered “trustworthy” by 77 percent of South Koreans following the meeting, according to a survey by the Korea Research Center.

“Chairman Kim’s popularity has risen rapidly among South Koreans, and so have the expectations,” Mr. Moon told Mr. Kim last month when they met for the second time at Panmunjom. He said the summit meeting especially strengthened Mr. Kim’s image among younger South Koreans, who have shaped their views of North Korea through the past decade of inter-Korean tensions and have become increasingly skeptical of reconciliation, much less reunification, with the North.

“That’s great to hear,” Mr. Kim responded, according to South Korean officials.

Critics warn of dashed expectations, reiterating their view that Mr. Kim will never completely abandon the nuclear weapons considered so dear to his regime’s survival and his legitimacy as leader of North Korea.

“It’s right to be skeptical,” said Ra Jong-yil, a political scientist and former deputy director of the South’s National Intelligence Service. “How can the leader of a nation change so quickly? We tend to see what we want to see in North Korea.”

Some expect that in his meeting with Mr. Trump, Mr. Kim will most likely commit to denuclearizing his country completely in order to weaken the rationale for sanctions, but insist on a “phased” denuclearization. They say Mr. Kim probably fears that whatever agreement he strikes with Mr. Trump may not survive, given Washington’s unpredictable politics.

“The whole world is being duped” by Mr. Kim, said Shim Jin-sup, a retired psychological warfare officer of the South Korean military and expert on North Korean propaganda.

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