Kim Jong Un: statesman and all-around normal guy?
While this view is unlikely considering Pyongyang’s reputation as a nuclear-armed pariah state, the North Korean leader, who until last week hadn’t left his isolated nation since taking power in 2011, has embarked on a surprise campaign to improve his country’s image. In the span of a week, Kim met China’s leader and the head of the International Olympic Committee and took in a performance by some of rival South Korea’s top musical stars.
But is an image makeover really the top priority for the North Korean leader? Experts say it’s unlikely, and the flurry of meetings, events and diplomatic activity is merely a facade for more strategic goals, including the dividing of allies and the easing of biting sanctions amid the U.S.-led “maximum pressure” campaign of President Donald Trump.
“Kim’s recent international activities are an attempt to fracture the unified front against his regime,” said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at International Christian University in Tokyo.
Nagy said that by first reaching out to the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in through Olympic diplomacy and then conducting a surprise visit to China, Kim had deftly worked to peel away Seoul and Beijing from the pressure campaign — with an added benefit of leaving Japan “scrambling to exert its interests as well.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said Tokyo is open to talks with Kim, and Japanese media reported last week that Pyongyang is considering a June summit.
“All in all, Kim has astutely fractured the U.S.-led unified front to denuclearize the North,” Nagy said.
On Sunday, Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, were among the hundreds in Pyongyang to watch South Korean K-pop singers perform in the North for the first time in more than a decade. It was the first time a North Korean leader attended a South Korean performance in the North’s capital.
Video footage showed Kim clapping in tune to some of the songs and taking photographs with the performers after the show.
“Our dear leader comrade said his heart swelled and he was moved by the sight of his people deepen their understanding of South Korean popular culture and cheer with sincerity,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said in a report Monday.
The North Korean audience clapped, cheered, and sang along to some of the songs and later presented the South Korean performers with bouquets.
“(Kim Jong Un) showed much interest during the show and asked questions about the songs and lyrics,” South Korean Culture Minister Do Jong-whan was quoted as saying after the show.
But the images of the North Korean dictator laughing and speaking with the young South Korean pop stars and applauding from his private booth was a stark contrast to defector reports claiming that Kim has overseen a huge crackdown on foreign media, which he views as a threat to his regime.
“North Korean refugees overwhelmingly and consistently report that it has become more dangerous to consume foreign media under Kim Jong Un’s crackdowns,” Sokeel Park, the South Korea country director for refugee aid organization Liberty in North Korea, wrote Monday on Twitter.
A 2015 survey of North Korean refugees conducted by the U.S. government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors found that 77 percent of respondents said it had become more dangerous to listen to foreign radio under Kim.
South Korean movies were often said to be especially taboo compared to Chinese films, according to a recent report by the InterMedia consultancy group, with North Koreans potentially facing prison time if caught.
Highlighting the threat that foreign media represented to Kim, prominent defector and former North Korean Deputy Ambassador to the U.K. Thae Yong Ho even said last year that its dissemination in the isolated country was the United States’ best hope of bringing down the regime.
Sunday’s performance also coincided with the start of annual joint South Korean-U.S. military drills, which the North calls a rehearsal for invasion. The exercises had been delayed and shortened this year in order not to overshadow February’s Olympic detente.
The recent thaw, which could see the first-ever summit between sitting U.S. and North Korean leaders by the end of May, follows months of soaring tensions as the North conducted its most powerful nuclear test and launched more than 20 missiles — including two intermediate-range weapons that flew over Japan and another long-range missile that experts say puts the whole of the United States in striking distance. With the test of that long-range missile in November, the North said it had “realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”
Sunday’s concert in Pyongyang was entitled “Spring is Coming” and featured an elite lineup of South Korean artists including veteran vocalists Cho Yong-pil, Lee Sun-hee, rock star Yoon Do-hyun and singer Baek Ji-young, as well as K-pop girl band Red Velvet.
Like the concert title, the performance had brought a “spring of peace” to the two Koreas, Kim was quoted as saying by KCNA, and expressed wishes for a “prosperous autumn.”
Kim has also deployed his family, including Ri and his sister, Kim Yo Jong, to soften his and his country’s image. Kim Yo Jong was featured in media reports worldwide that spotlighted her relaxed demeanor on her tour of South Korea during the Pyeongchang Olympics while Ri, a fashionable former singer, was compared with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s wife, renowned diva Peng Liyuan, during Kim’s secret visit to Beijing.
Nagy said Ri and Kim Yo Jong “have been effective and powerful tools to humanize Kim Jong Un and the regime.”
“By parading them to the international community, the regime has found a way to convey that the North and Kim in particular are not extraordinarily strange or inhuman but rather relatable and family oriented,” Nagy said.
Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korea expert at The Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts, echoed these claims, but said the implications would likely be short-lived.
“Kim seeks to come across as a gracious host and a confident, normal, global statesman presiding over a not-so-abnormal country with nukes for keeps,” Lee said. “I reckon Kim also really wanted to see Red Velvet live, as many, many people all over East Asia do. Musical diplomacy may melt negative frozen images, but in the end it’s just entertainment.”
Ultimately, “the implications of K-pop in Pyongyang will be about the same as the implications of Dennis Rodman frolicking with Kim Jong Un over the years — events of no geopolitical or humanitarian consequence,” Lee said, referring to the former basketball star who has visited Pyongyang multiple times.
Next on the agenda for Kim, Lee said, would be to hold more meetings with key world leaders — including Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin — in an effort to lend further credibility to his rule.
“With ‘Nukes ‘R Us’ street cred established last year, Kim seeks to routinize summit meetings with Moon, Abe, Trump, Xi, Putin, etc., and thereby be accepted as a legitimate leader of a nuclear nation,” said Lee. “Parading his glamorous wife is part of this game. Kim seeks to win time and money with sanctions-busting drawn-out, nonbiting nuclear negotiations.”