“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.”