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From ‘Punk Kid’ to 21st Century Tyrant: Kim Jong Un Seizes His Moment


JUNE 9, 2018

If North Korea’s propaganda machine is to be believed, “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong Un comes from a long line of mythical heroes.

His grandfather was the greatest genius ever to have walked the Earth. His father was a prodigy in all areas, proving himself a crack pistol shot—on horseback—by age 5.

So International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach was pleasantly surprised during a March meeting in Pyongyang when the North Korean dictator broke the ice with a self-effacing remark about his own diminutive size and portly physique.

“Even if it may not look like it, I love to play sport, and especially basketball,” Mr. Bach, a former Olympic fencer, says Mr. Kim told him.

Mr. Kim has a way of overturning expectations. When he inherited power in North Korea in December 2011, expert opinion was he’d be toppled or killed within a year. Filmed red-faced and sobbing at his father’s wake, the pudgy would-be dictator in his late 20s didn’t seem up to the Darwinian task of extending the bloody Kim dynasty to a third generation.

Six years on, he is a bona fide 21st century tyrant prepping for a planned June 12 meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump—a summit Mr. Kim’s father and grandfather only dreamed about. Along the way, he acquired intercontinental ballistic missiles faster than many scientists thought possible, and threatened to use them on U.S. cities during a harrowing nuclear standoff.

At home, he is digging in for a long rule by replacing older apparatchiks with younger ones loyal to him. He has killed rival family members, staged public executions and is keeping some 100,000 people in gulags, say United Nations investigators who accused him of crimes against humanity in 2014. He’s had more defense ministers so far than served in all North Korea’s previous 50 years.

Once seen as a sadistic recluse who lacked the confidence to meet a single foreign leader during his first six years in power, Mr. Kim is now on a diplomacy blitz. Since March, he has met twice with both the president of South Korea and China’s leader and proposed a summit with Mr. Trump—all while gaining a reputation as a sure-footed host who toasts guests with fine wines and softens his fearsome reputation with humor.

While the North Korea nuclear crisis is still unfolding and Mr. Kim’s future is far from certain, the man Mr. Trump is gearing up to meet has turned out to be a far-more-calculating, brutal and ambitious operator than was once believed, raising the challenges for Washington in the years ahead.

“People who have assumed for years that he was some punk kid with a real mean streak put in a position of power are now finding out that he has a lot more capabilities than that,” says Ken Gause, who follows North Korea’s leadership at CNA, an Arlington, Va., think tank.

IOC head Mr. Bach’s encounter with Mr. Kim at a sports complex in Pyongyang came just days after the dictator had traveled by armored train to Beijing to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and just before his secret Easter weekend meeting with now-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

After a private conversation in which Mr. Kim spoke without notes or aides, the North Korean ruler led Mr. Bach into a stadium where some 100,000 North Koreans were awaiting a women’s soccer game. The huge crowd applauded Mr. Kim’s arrival for what seemed like 15 minutes before the game began, an official there said.

Mr. Kim ended the week with a concert by visiting South Korean K-Pop musicians.

With his hair slicked into an anvil-like pompadour, Mr. Kim now appears at least a decade older than he is, and so much like a propaganda poster of his late grandfather Kim Il Sung, worshiped as North Korea’s founder, that some observers suspect he had plastic surgery for that purpose.

U.S. intelligence officials concede they lacked a full picture of Mr. Kim, the obscure third son of Kim Jong Il, when he emerged as successor. Perhaps more important, Mr. Kim is evolving on the job, these officials said. They describe his string of diplomatic meetings in the run-up to the possible Trump summit as the “paragon” of strategic foreign-affairs planning.

In the meetings, Mr. Kim is tailoring his posture for effect, seeking to play the interests of China, South Korea and the U.S. against each other to his advantage, says Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Jung H. Pak, a former Central Intelligence Agency senior analyst for North Korea.

In late March, when Mr. Kim went by train to China to improve ties with its leader Mr. Xi, a linchpin for sanctions enforcement, Mr. Kim was filmed taking notes like a schoolboy as the older man lectured.

Mr. Pompeo said his meeting with Mr. Kim a few days later was “productive” and a sign that there is “a real opportunity” for a historic disarmament deal.

In South Korea, where Mr. Kim is often portrayed as a bloodthirsty delinquent, he smiled, clasped President Moon Jae-in’s hand and promised an era of peace during their live April summit. Mr. Kim even vowed to reset North Korea’s clocks to normal Korea time after turning them back 30 minutes in 2015.

After the summit, 78% of South Korean respondents said they now viewed Mr. Kim positively, according to a poll by South Korea’s MBC News, compared with approval ratings of as low as 10% in previous polls. “Once we start talking, the U.S. will see I am not the kind of person to launch nukes,” Mr. Kim told Mr. Moon, South Korea said.

Trump administration officials credit tough economic sanctions and the threat of U.S. military strikes with pressuring Mr. Kim to come to the negotiating table, raising hopes for nuclear detente and a peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War.

“He is very young, so he presumably wants to be around for a long time and maybe wants to, you know, have some kind of different future for his country,” said Susan Thornton, an East Asia expert who serves as acting assistant secretary of state.

South Korean conservatives and U.S. hawks say Mr. Kim has no intention of giving up his weapons, a move he likely equates with suicide. Instead, his charm offensive is meant to reduce the chances the U.S. will attack, persuade China to loosen sanctions enforcement and get South Korea’s progressive government to provide him with food and other aid.

Long-term, he wants to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea, and perhaps one day unify the Korean Peninsula on his terms, these skeptics say.

U.S. officials say they are wary. “No one in the Trump administration is starry-eyed about what’s happening here,” national security adviser John Bolton, a longtime North Korea hard-liner, has said.

North Korea has broken four nuclear deals since 1992, while receiving $1.3 billion in food and oil from the U.S.

Getting a read on Mr. Kim is difficult because North Korea is arguably the world’s most secretive nation, all but cut off from global phone lines and internet, and obscured behind a kaleidoscope of propaganda.

North Korea kept the death of Mr. Kim’s father Kim Jong Il a secret for two full days without the U.S. or South Korean intelligence services figuring it out. Even the younger Mr. Kim’s birth year—believed to be 1984—is unconfirmed.

Pyongyang is a city of pastel buildings, huge Kim murals and towering Kim statues. Propaganda music and speeches echo from outdoor speakers. Tourists, businesspeople and journalists who travel there on closely monitored trips see only fragments but never the big picture.

But the capital is changing under Mr. Kim. In his recent visit, Mr. Bach saw a city that appeared more polished and vibrant than what he remembered from a previous visit two decades before. Once gray and drab, the city now features newer buildings. Passersby appeared better dressed, wearing more colors, he said. Where officials once read prepared statements to him, they now spoke extemporaneously.

“You get a glimpse,” Mr. Bach said.

In the absence of data, some researchers turn to history for insights. Like all tyrants, going back to the fourth century B.C. tyrant of Syracuse who lived under the proverbial Sword of Damocles, Mr. Kim rules with the knowledge he may be killed at any moment, many experts believe.

Others search for clues in sources like the video of Mr. Kim’s April meeting with South Korea’s president: Mr. Kim seemed winded after strutting across the DMZ line. Was he nervous or out of shape?

South Korean envoys who visited him in February told reporters he appeared “relaxed” and “confident,” jokingly apologizing for waking up South Korea’s president with crack-of-dawn missile tests, and musing about his reputation as a global pariah.

Others are repulsed by the idea that Mr. Kim is anything more than a psychopath.

“People are going to see him and say, ‘Wow, he is acting like a normal person.’ But he is not a normal person. This is the guy who kills his own family,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

To instill fear, Mr. Kim uses brutal practices such as public executions with antiaircraft guns and imprisoning three generations of a dissenter’s family, according to Greg Scarlatoiu, who runs the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

“This is a highly paranoid regime built on an us-versus-them mentality, where the Kims truly fear their own people,” said Mr. Scarlatoiu, who grew up under Romania’s brutal dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Mr. Kim threatened terrorist attacks to prevent Sony Pictures from releasing the 2014 film “The Interview,” in which he is killed by buffoonish reporters. Soon after, hackers broke into Sony’s servers and put embarrassing internal email and unreleased films online. U.S. officials say North Korea is responsible.

“He spent six years pushing the envelope without any punishment,” said Ms. Pak, the former CIA analyst. “Once your confidence grows and failure is not in your vocabulary, your ambitions evolve.”

Educated under an alias at posh Swiss schools, the Chicago Bulls-loving youngest son of Kim Jong Il and a Japanese-born dancer was a surprise choice to outsiders. His existence wasn’t even mentioned in state media until 2010.

Though he’d been dressed up as a general as a little boy, Mr. Kim hardly seemed to have the résumé to run a tyrannical regime. While North Koreans starved, the Kims dined on imported sushi, shark fin soup and delicacies including Uzbec caviar, according to Kenji Fujimoto, the alias of a Japanese sushi chef who worked for the Kims.

At 13, Mr. Kim started smoking Yves Saint Laurent menthol cigarettes, among the world’s most expensive at $55 a pack, Mr. Fujimoto said in a televised interview. Mr. Kim told Mr. Bach that he had visited the Olympic museum in Lausanne, Switzerland twice as a boy.

Meantime, North Korea was a mess. Founded as Soviet-backed satellite after World War II, the isolated nation was struggling to emerge from a famine that had killed around 1 million in the 1990s.

The Kims held power through the brutal enforcement of a family personality cult, even though average North Koreans who survived the famine were becoming aware that life was better elsewhere thanks to surging defections.

Mr. Kim’s overseas schooling may have afforded him some advantages. He has seen far more of the West than his father, and may speak some German and English.

Western experts believed Mr. Kim would rule as a weak figurehead under the care of a regent, his uncle-by-marriage, and powerful generals.

But more than his father, Mr. Kim has shown a willingness to kill family.

In 2013, he ordered the execution of his uncle, leaving little question who was in charge.

In 2017, Mr. Kim ordered his half brother and critic, Kim Jong Nam, killed with VX nerve agent in a Malaysian airport, U.S. officials say. The victim carried atropine, a possible VX antidote, suggesting he lived in fear of a foretold fate.

In five years Mr. Kim executed or purged some 340 officials, according to South Korea’s intelligence service.

“At first we were all perplexed why he was chosen,” says Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul. “But then we realized that he is an efficient, rational, Machiavellian dictator, and only an efficient, rational, Machiavellian dictator can rule North Korea, otherwise it will collapse.”

One month before Mr. Kim took office, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who had dismantled his own nuclear program in 2003 under U.S. pressure, was killed by a NATO-backed insurgency.

To avoid a similar fate, Mr. Kim began a policy of byungjin, a two-pronged strategy of “irreversibly” completing the nuclear program to deter foreign intervention, while reviving the economy to bolster his legitimacy, observers say.

To improve food supply, Mr. Kim de-collectivized some farms and allowed black-market trading in food and other goods to flourish.

To raise living standards for loyal elites, he imported some $2 billion of luxury goods including whiskey and electronics in his first three years, according to Chinese trade data. He built attractions such as a water park, dolphin show and a ski resort.

Though the measures helped achieve 4% growth, they have also made North Korea more vulnerable to economic sanctions.

North Korea had wanted nuclear weapons for 60 years when Mr. Kim took power, but managed to detonate only two embarrassingly low-yield bombs.

A crucial sign Mr. Kim was serious about completing the task came just four months into his rule, when he ripped up a “Leap Day” disarmament deal to receive food aid he’d agreed to two weeks earlier. Instead, he declared he would launch a rocket into space—a key step toward building a ballistic missile.

It didn’t go well. The rocket broke up after 90 seconds and splashed into the ocean west of Seoul. Mr. Kim, who had invited the foreign press to view the launchpad, had failed publicly.

Instead of covering up the mishap at home, as many foreign observers expected, Mr. Kim allowed his state media to report the mishap. He admitted the failure and encouraged his scientists to keep trying.

“It showed the more modern, flexible management style that you need for innovation, the difference between a system where everyone is afraid of failure, and one where you learn from your mistakes, fix it and get better,” said John Delury, an expert on North Korea at Yonsei University in Seoul who is writing a book about the Kims.

One month later, Mr. Kim added the term “Nuclear State” to the definition of North Korea in its constitution. By the end of that year, the North Korean missile engineers were ready to attempt to launch the rocket again—and it worked.

In Sept., he detonated North Korea’s most powerful nuclear device. In Nov. 2017, North Korea launched the Hwasong-15, an intercontinental missile that flew for 53 minutes with a range of 8,000 miles—enough to hit anywhere in the U.S. Though doubts remain, Mr. Kim declared he had a achieved a “state nuclear force.”

“Our Republic has at last come to possess a powerful and reliable war deterrent, which no force and nothing can reverse,” Mr. Kim said his annual January speech, wearing a business suit instead of a Mao outfit. “The nuclear button is on my office desk all the time.”

Then he offered to deal.