Since the historic Korean summit last week, Seoul has been consumed with hot gossip—not whether North Korea will abandon the bomb or end a sixty-eight-year-old war but over the quirks of Kim Jong Un, the world’s most mysterious leader. In interviews and conversations, everyone I’ve talked to in the South Korean capital has had a favorite anecdote: the North Korean did not smoke during meetings, despite having a notorious bad habit, photographed in North Korea with a cigarette burning as he toured a hospital, school gymnasium, children’s bedroom, and airport tarmac. He was unexpectedly candid about his country’s shortcomings. In discussing South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s reciprocal visit to Pyongyang next fall, Kim advised him to fly because North Korea’s roads are so bad—an unprecedented admission of failure by a country that long claimed to be a socialist paradise. He publicly acknowledged “defectors,” rather than the “scum of the earth,” as they’re labelled in Pyongyang. At the evening banquet, Kim smiled, bantered, and generally charmed as he moved among tables toasting and hugging officials of a country with which he is technically at war. For the evening entertainment, he brought along a magician who captivated the audience by turning a folded dollar bill into a hundred bucks.
In South Korea, Kim is no longer simply the porky princeling with a bizarrely square coif who killed his way to the top by ordering the assassinations of a powerful uncle and a half brother—among others. “Before, he had a notorious image,” Moon Chung-in, a Presidential adviser on inter-Korean affairs, told me this week. “He had been seen as a demon, evil, impulsive, irrational. That was not the case at the banquet. He was quite rational, reasonable, accommodating, and accessible.” President Moon later described Kim to aides as “frank, open-minded, and courteous.” The North Korean never invoked the superiority of a nuclear power—which he is, and Moon is not.
Among progressives in Seoul’s government circles and conservatives who oppose them, there’s now a sense that Kim will more than match wits with President Trump. At the Korean talks, Kim had a mastery of the issues “from A to Z,” the Presidential adviser added. “At the age of thirty-four, he’s really mature. He didn’t need help from aides or assistants. Moon was quite surprised.” [Continue reading…]