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

“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.

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

“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.”

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