Kim Jong Un uncensored: 7 impressions gleaned from historic summit

Members of the media watching a broadcast of South Korea's president Moon Jae In (left) and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un talking privately outside the truce village of Panmunjom. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shaking hands with South Korea's President Moon Jae In during the Inter-Korean summit in the Peace House building on the southern side of the truce village of Panmunjom. PHOTO: AFP/KCNA

SEOUL - For years, he has been regarded by much of the outside world as a ruthless dictator, the face of a hermit kingdom intent on developing weapons of mass destruction when its people are starving.

Just when the world is becoming used to the sight of Kim Jong Un presiding over missile launches and military parades, a very different Kim hogged the international limelight last Friday (April 27) at a historic summit between the two Koreas.

Very little has been known of the young leader since he took power following his father's death in late 2011. North Korean state media tend to broadcast only carefully-selected snippets of Kim aimed at propagandising the third-generation lineage of so-called Mount Baekdu bloodline.

His secret visit to China in late March, believed to his first trip outside North Korea since taking power, yielded no live footage. In contrast, his day-long outing to the south last week has offered a lot more details about him.

For hours, everything from his facial expressions, gait, voice, dressing to his signature hairstyle (designed to remind folks of his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea) was streamed live by global media outlets.

The footage offered US intelligence experts, who are trying to build a profile of Kim for President Donald Trump ahead of a planned summit between the pair, North Korea watchers and body language experts a rare chance to decipher his personality and find out what makes him tick.

Here are seven impressions gleaned from the summit.

1. Kim, a straight-talker with a sense of humour

Unification Minister Cho Myong Gyon, who was part of South Korean President Moon Jae In's delegation at the summit, told a radio show on Monday that Kim Jong Un as "considerably straightforward, decisive rather than calculative".

Handwriting experts told Korea Herald his handwritten message in the guestbook of summit venue hints at a feisty and confident personality.

While he is usually depicted using the hero-worship language in the North Korean propaganda machine, the latest footage helped soften his image, portraying him as a decent and reasonable leader.

Kim broke the ice when he joked that North Korea's early morning missile launches had likely awakened Moon numerous times, and promised not to do that any more.

Kim also said he had heard impressive things about South Korean express trains, and told Moon that he would probably find North Korea's train system "inconvenient" by comparison.

"If you visit, having lived in such an environment, it would be embarrassing for us," Kim said, according to officials. "We will prepare ourselves to better accommodate you when you come."

Kim Hyung Suk, a former South Korean vice unification minister, said: "It appeared he prepared a lot but also was pretty comfortable going off-script."

"It was his de facto debut on the world stage, and he now wants to work with the international community and rebuild the economy, for which he needs an image as a soft, decent leader."

2. Kim is of flesh and blood too

South Korean Choi Hyun Ah, a 24-year-old events planner, sums it up best: "I heard Kim Jong Un making a joke and hearing that made me realise that he is also just a human being."

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un and South Korea's President Moon Jae In participating in a tree-planting ceremony next to the Military Demarcation Line. PHOTO: AFP/KCNA

Kim showed a few brief moments of human fallibility, appearing slightly out of puff at times and missing the soil when trying to plant his shovel during a tree-planting ceremony.

Kim also was spotted dozing off during a farewell music performance after dinner.

"Because of the North Korean state media's portrayal of Kim often as an enigmatic creature, we are so used to seeing images of Kim being so serious and humourless," said Lim Jae Cheon, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University in Seoul.

"But what we saw today was totally different. Kim proved today that he is just an ordinary man, not a perfect human being."

3. A short walk left him panting

After their historic handshake at the borderline, Kim and Moon moved to a small plaza to inspect an honour guard before walking together for a couple of minutes to the Peace House, the venue for the summit.

Despite the relative short walk of around 200 m to 300 m, Kim was heard panting heavily through his mouth, his shoulders heaving a bit, as he signed a guestbook at the Peace House.

The footage raised questions over his physical fitness: South Korean media quickly speculated that Kim, believed to be 34, likely suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. He is about 170 cm tall and weighs 130 kg.

Kim's father and grandfather both died of heart ailments.

Some experts point out that the heavy breathing could be due to the nerves. It was after all his first debut on the world's stage - being watched by millions across the globe.

"Obviously he has done that in North Korea. At the back of your mind, if you were him, you were in a completely different environment, you don't know if everything is going to go quite as planned as it would in the north," said NKNews CEO Chad O'Carroll, pointing out that a KCNA reporter in the same room was sweating profusely.

"That made me think,'That guy must be as nervous as well.' He's stepping into enemy's territory. It's so different from any other summit in our area."

Commentators say Kim was clearly more relaxed in the afternoon session of the talks.

4. An inexperienced stateman seeking his footing

The leaders' one-on-one conversation on a foot bridge in the truce village stood out for seasoned North Korea watcher Oliver Hotham who discussed the body language between Kim and Moon in the latest podcast by NK News.

It wasn't clear what the leaders talked about during their 30 minutes of private chat. The chirping of birds was all that could be heard on the live TV footage.

"You really become aware that Kim is a man in his thirties and is quite unsure of his place", whereas Moon is a man in his 60s with lots of experience in life, said Hotham in the latest podcast by NKNews.

He said that Moon "was completely solid as a rock" and occasionally leaning in, sipping his tea, and looking at Kim in the eye - directly.

"Kim might have been craving a cigarette," Hotham said, noting that Kim was twitching around and kept leaning forward and backward during their chat.

"His hands were everywhere. He didn't touch the tea. .. He didn't seem at ease at all," he said, adding that Kim is most likely to have been coached for his coming-out party.

5. Heavy smoker resisted urge to light up

The South's presidential Blue House had set water, tea and an ashtray on the table near the benches where the two leaders sat together for their private one-on-one conversation.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un talks with South Korea's President Moon Jae In at a bench on a bridge next to the military demarcation line at Panmunjom. PHOTO: AFP

But Kim, who is known to be a heavy smoker, did not light up once in Moon's presence, apparently out of respect for the South Korean president who is at least 30 years his senior.

The only time Kim was spotted smoking during the day of the summit was around 8pm (Seoul time) when he quietly walked out of the dinner banquet and lit up a separate room.

Kim reportedly smokes wherever he is, often giving orders to officials with a lit cigarette in his hand.

He smokes indoors even when he visits hospitals, schools and kindergartens in North Korea. An ashtray is ready wherever he sits, reported Chosun Ilbo.

His father Kim Jong Il also was a heavy smoker, but state media would edit out or delete images of him smoking.

"But Kim Jong Un doesn't seem to mind," a South Korean government official told Chosun.

6. Bromance with lots of skinship

South Korean President Moon Jae In and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrive at the Peace House in the truce village of Panmunjom, on April 27, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

Experts say Kim seemed at ease around Moon, at times laughing with him and at others listening intently.

Kim and Moon were seen hugging and holding hands several times, which are uncustomary in either North or South Korea.

Body language expert Judi James said the rapport between the two Korean leaders appeared to be genuine, rather than staged.

She said Kim's body language showed that he was "actively listening", noting the big smile on his face the moment he saw his South Korean host.

"When they walk away together they are away from the press but their heads seem to be turned towards one another's, genuinely seeking out conversation and possibly empathy," she told the Daily Mail.

7. Kim with a taste for finer things in life

South Korea's President Moon Jae In speaks as North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un listens, during the official dinner at the end of their historic summit at Panmunjom. PHOTO: AFP

Kim did not once refuse the strong liquor poured by South Korean participants during the 160-minute dinner banquet, according to the participants at the event, reported Korea Herald.

Moon, South Korea's first lady Kim Jung Sook, Kim and his wife Ri Sol Ju, as well as other dinner guests drank the alcohol prepared by the South Korean side: Moonbaeju. The drink, made of millet and sorghum, has its origins in North Korea's Pyeongan Province, and alcohol content of 40 per cent.

During the banquet, Kim appeared a little drunk, his face red, his eyes unfocused.

Kim is a big fan of French wine and once drank 10 bottles of Bordeaux in one night, according to media reports citing the Kim family's former sushi chef.

The other luxury items spotted during the summit was his Mercedes-Benz S600 Pullman Guard luxury limousine and the Montblanc fountain pen used to pen a message in the visitors' book of the Peace House.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un signs the guest book next to his sister Kim Yo Jong during the Inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom, on April 27, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

His one billion-won (US$930,000) worth limo is a specially renovated model with a 6.4 metre-long long-body and is made of bullet-proof steel and special aramid fiber that can ward off bullets and even a grenade.

Kim reportedly owns owns a collection of supercars that is believed to be worth US$20 million and counting.

North Korean bodyguards jog next to a car carrying North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un. PHOTO: AFP

On April 15 last year, Kim was seen attending a parade in Mercedes-Benz's flagship S600 Pullman Guard limo in Pyongyang. Kim used the same car when he visited Beijing for a summit to meet Chinese President Xi in late March.


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