HONG KONG/SINGAPORE – When Kim Jong Un made his first official trip outside North Korea in March, he slipped into China aboard an armored train and his countrymen didn’t learn about it until he was safely home. Kim’s excursion to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump was a much different story.
During Kim’s three days in Singapore, North Korean state media trumpeted daily images never before seen in Pyongyang. There on the front page of the ruling party’s flagship newspaper was Kim touring monuments to capitalism, stepping out of a Chinese jet and smiling while shaking hands with the “imperialist” U.S. president.
The propaganda push not only signaled Kim’s new confidence on the world stage after a series of diplomatic wins, it also conveyed a desire for greater openness and economic development. In the past, North Korean leaders had avoided images like the borrowed jet — a sign of the country’s industrial weakness — or casual interactions with U.S. officials, which undercuts decades of official animosity.
State media also usually refrains from reporting on leaders’ excursions until they had returned home, minimizing the chances of any palace intrigue in Pyongyang. Even coverage of Kim’s April summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in was delayed, barring one report saying he had left the capital.
“It’s like openly declaring he’s the leader of a normal state and he’s got the confidence to do so,” said Ahn Chan-il, who defected from North Korea in 1979 and is now head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies. “It doesn’t only herald Kim’s decision to open up the economy, but also his determination that he, from now on, will let everyone know his whereabouts without feeling too worried of his safety.”
Images from Kim’s summit with Trump were plastered across more than three pages of Wednesday’s state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper, which was almost exclusively devoted to the landmark meeting. There were photos of Kim and Trump — whom the same newspaper mocked as a “dotard” last year — standing in front of their national flags, lunching, taking a stroll and, perhaps most interestingly, smiling with each other.
One picture even showed Kim shaking hands with National Security Adviser John Bolton, a former top U.S. arms-control official who North Korean media once described as “human scum and a bloodsucker.” Kim’s vice foreign minister cited Bolton’s remarks calling for the rapid removal and destruction of North Korea’s nuclear weapons in a statement last month threatening to cancel talks.
The image campaign was probably coordinated by Kim Yo Jong, Kim’s sister and a senior figure — if not head — of North Korea’s propaganda department, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. She has been credited with carefully guarding her brother’s image: When Kim was about to sign a statement with Trump’s signature-emblazoned pen, Kim Yo Jung produced another pen from her pocket for him to use.
“His sister does seem to be a key player in remaking this international image and she’s doing very well,” said Martyn Williams, who is editor of San Francisco-based NorthKoreaTech.org and has covered tech and media in the country for about a decade. “Kim’s goal is to rebuild the economy and this shows him working towards that, so it’s still pursuing a domestic propaganda agenda.”
The effort at image-making coincides with Kim’s explosion onto the world stage, after spending his first six years in power never leaving North Korea. Since March, Kim has visited China twice, met Moon on their militarized border and spoken for the first time to groups of foreign reporters.
North Korea’s traveling media delegation — dressed in matching black — followed Kim through Singapore documenting throngs of fascinated onlookers during an impromptu late-night tour to inspect examples of the glimmering city-state’s economic development. At the Marina Bay Sands resort, regime cameramen rushed to film a waiting crowd of press and locals in the lobby before turning their lenses on Kim’s arriving limousine.
Attempts by Bloomberg News to engage the North Korean reporters were rebuffed, although they did become useful for another reason. The close coordination between the Pyongyang delegation and its traveling press meant that when the North Korean journalists sprang into action, it signaled to the rest of the media pack that Kim was about to make a move.
Hours later, their images would be published in Rodong Sinmun, posted in government buildings and in Pyongyang metro stations, where passengers gathered to read of their leader’s exploits in foreign lands.
“While it’s propaganda, it has a clear message that the newspaper will start to report any rapid changes in the system faster and more properly,” said Ahn, of the World Institute for North Korea Studies. “Now he’s got that confidence after meeting the world’s strongest leader.”