What a difference a year makes.
In a scene that would have been unthinkable just nine months ago, photos released Sunday showed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un making the popular “finger hearts” gesture atop Mount Paektu — one of the Koreas most sacred sites — with top South Korean officials.
The pictures, released by South Korea’s presidential Blue House, showed a beaming Kim posing while attempting the gesture in front of the mountain’s pristine crater lake on Thursday.
The gesture, popularized in the South by K-pop bands such as BTS and other celebrities, entails crisscrossing the thumb and index finger into a heart shape.
The Blue House said Sunday that South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha had proposed the idea for the photo.
A Blue House spokesman had earlier last week told a news conference that Kim had attempted the gesture during the visit to the mountain with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and officials from both Koreas.
“How do you do it? I can’t quite make the shape,” Kim was quoted as saying by Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom.
The North Korean dictator ultimately succeeded in making the gesture, with his wife, Ri Sol Ju, supporting his finger heart with her hands.
The visit to Paektu, and the gesture episode, were widely seen as a propaganda coup for Kim who has worked this year to transform his image from that of a cold-blooded tyrant bent on pursuing a viable nuclear arsenal and who will stop at nothing to maintain his grip on power, including ordering the assassination of his half-brother with the deadly VX nerve agent and having his uncle executed.
Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues, said the image of Kim making the gesture “plays well in South Korea and with many international audiences.”
“It reinforces the narrative that Kim Jong Un is fundamentally different and someone you can do business with,” Oba said. “So, whether it was done very deliberately or on the spur of the moment, the effect has been to support the very image North Korea wants to portray to outside audiences.”
Last year saw the North conduct its most powerful nuclear test ever while also unleashing a spate of missile tests, including two over Japan and another of a missile believed capable of striking all of the continental United States.
Kim in January said that his nuclear arsenal was complete, and began work on improving ties with Seoul and Washington, culminating in his landmark summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore in June.
At that summit, Kim agreed to a vaguely worded 1½-page joint statement to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” while Trump committed to “provide security guarantees” to the regime.
But the talks have remained deadlocked since then, with Kim touting what the North has said are moves toward denuclearization and the White House repeatedly stressing that Pyongyang must first take verifiable steps to dismantle its nuclear arsenal before any further concessions.
The U.S. State Department said Saturday that Washington would not wait to impose sanctions on any entities helping to get fuel to North Korea, in an apparent warning to Russia days after the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations accused Moscow of cheating on the measures.
North Korea continues to employ tactics to evade U.N. sanctions, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement, adding that U.N. member states are required to prohibit ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum fuel to the nuclear-armed North.
“The United States will not hesitate to impose sanctions on any individual, entity, or vessel supporting North Korea’s illicit activities, regardless of nationality,” Nauert said.
Moon, Kim and their entourages visited Paektu — an active volcano and the spiritual epicenter of the North Korean revolution — after the leaders of the two Koreas pledged new steps aimed at salvaging the nuclear talks during their three-day summit in Pyongyang.
Observers said the Kim-Moon summit, their third, likely helped pave the way for a second meeting between Trump and the North Korean leader. The White House said last week it was in the process of planning for such a meeting, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday that it could happen “in the near future.”