Kim Jong-un’s Image Shift: From Nuclear Madman to Skillful Leader

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But nothing softened Mr. Kim’s image like the moment when he arrived at the border to meet with Mr. Moon. At Mr. Kim’s suggestion, Mr. Moon stepped across the border into the North for 10 seconds. Then Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon walked back across to the South for their meeting, holding hands, an encounter that transfixed television viewers in South Korea.

“That single gesture went beyond political language,” said Mr. Chung, the anthropologist. “The theatrics conveyed messages of trust that language alone could not.”

The summit meeting mainly rehashed old inter-Korean agreements that had never been kept, producing only a vaguely worded commitment to denuclearization and peace. But the images made the event a success, providing momentum for warmed ties between the two countries and redefining Mr. Kim in the eyes of many South Koreans.

The next morning, a South Korean newspaper filled its front and back pages with a photograph showing Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim crossing the border hand in hand. Mr. Kim, formerly vilified as the region’s most dangerous leader, was considered “trustworthy” by 77 percent of South Koreans following the meeting, according to a survey by the Korea Research Center.

“Chairman Kim’s popularity has risen rapidly among South Koreans, and so have the expectations,” Mr. Moon told Mr. Kim last month when they met for the second time at Panmunjom. He said the summit meeting especially strengthened Mr. Kim’s image among younger South Koreans, who have shaped their views of North Korea through the past decade of inter-Korean tensions and have become increasingly skeptical of reconciliation, much less reunification, with the North.

“That’s great to hear,” Mr. Kim responded, according to South Korean officials.

Critics warn of dashed expectations, reiterating their view that Mr. Kim will never abandon the nuclear weapons considered so dear to his regime’s survival and his legitimacy as leader of North Korea.

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