SEOUL, South Korea — He ordered his uncle executed and half brother assassinated. He spent millions developing and testing a hydrogen bomb and intercontinental ballistic missiles as his people suffered severe food shortages. He exchanged threats of nuclear annihilation with President Trump, calling the American leader a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”
That was last year’s image.
In more recent months, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has achieved one of the most striking transformations in modern diplomacy.
The man described by critics as a murderous dictator and nuclear lunatic has held hands and had heart-to-heart talks with South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, who has encouraged and abetted Mr. Kim’s makeover.
With a dazzle of diplomatic initiatives in the run-up to his historic June 12 summit meeting with Mr. Trump in Singapore, Mr. Kim has effectively redefined himself. Some South Koreans now see him as more reliable than Mr. Trump despite the decades-long alliance between their country and the United States.
Mr. Kim’s enhanced standing among South Koreans was crystallized by recent images of him walking in the woods with Mr. Moon, and on a beach with President Xi Jinping of China discussing North Korea’s nuclear program.
The optics contrasted with what many South Koreans view as Mr. Trump’s scattershot diplomacy, in which he abruptly canceled the Singapore summit meeting, then reversed himself after Mr. Kim authorized a calm statement offering Mr. Trump “time and opportunity” to change his mind. (On Wednesday, one of the president’s lawyers, Rudolph Giuliani, said that Mr. Kim “got back on his hands and knees and begged” for the summit to be rescheduled.)
Despite the image change, Mr. Kim is unlikely to surrender his nuclear weapons anytime soon, or ease the grip of his repressive regime. But he has proved to be a skilled — some might say beguiling — strategist, driving events on the Korean Peninsula and showing a willingness to recalibrate.
“Once Kim Jong-un decided to improve ties with South Korea and the United States, he knew he could not do so with his image as a repressive tyrant,” said Kang Dong-wan, an expert on North Korea’s “image politics” at Dong-A University in Busan, South Korea. “He is creating a new portrait of him abroad as the leader of a normal country.”
“金正恩一旦决定改善与韩国和美国的关系，就知道自己不能再保持专制暴君的形象，”韩国釜山东亚大学(Dong-A University)研究朝鲜“形象政治”的专家姜东浣（Kang Dong-wan，音）说。“他正在海外塑造自己是一个正常国家的领导人的新形象。”
In the West, Mr. Kim, 34, has often been caricatured as a chubby child toying with nuclear missiles. Mr. Trump, more than twice his age, has called Mr. Kim “short and fat,” a “sick puppy” and a “little rocket man.”
But when Mr. Trump meets Mr. Kim, the American leader will be dealing with the ruler of a totalitarian regime adept at political theatrics to bolster Mr. Kim’s charisma at home and advance his agenda abroad.
“The reason the world pays attention to him is not just because he has a few nuclear weapons, but more because of his image as a leader with mystical power, his absolute control over a highly consolidated, regimented and disciplined country,” said Chung Byung-ho, an anthropologist at Hanyang University in South Korea, who examined the role of theatrics in North Korean politics in a book he wrote with another scholar.
“世界关注他不只是因为他有几个核武器，更多的是因为他是一个神秘政权的领导人，对一个高度统一、刻板、严格的国家有着绝对的控制权，”韩国汉阳大学(Hanyang University)的人类学家郑炳镐（Chung Byung-ho，音）说。他和另一位学者合著了一本书，研究表演艺术在朝鲜政治中的作用。
Whatever his true personality, Mr. Kim has found an avid partner in advancing his new image: Mr. Moon.
Since taking office a year ago, Mr. Moon has exhorted Mr. Trump to test the idea that Mr. Kim was a reasonable leader ready to bargain away his nuclear weapons for the right incentives, such as normalized ties and security assurances from the United States. It seems to have worked: Mr. Trump has recently changed his public appraisals of the North Korean leader, calling him “smart and gracious” and “very honorable.”
Mr. Kim started his image makeover this year by reaching out to South Korea, which was eager to play intermediary between North Korea and the United States after a year in which the countries appeared to verge on war. In a New Year’s Day speech, Mr. Kim offered to send athletes, cheerleaders and political emissaries to South Korea during its Winter Olympics.
Then, he whetted Washington’s appetite for negotiations by announcing a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, closing North Korea’s only known nuclear test site and releasing three American prisoners. He also appeared to have hedged his bets by meeting twice with Mr. Xi, mending frayed ties with an old ally whose protection he needed as he entered delicate negotiations with Washington.
The diplomatic outreach was a sharp departure from North Korea’s history of rhetorical bombast, chest-thumping theatrics, military parades and mass rallies, which have fed the country’s image as an international pariah.
For the summit held at the “truce village” of Panmunjom on the inter-Korean border, Mr. Moon’s government redecorated a conference building, installing paintings of famous mountains and waterfalls that reminded people in both Koreas of their shared heritage before their peninsula was divided by foreign powers at the end of World War II.
“We packed each piece of furniture and each painting with a story,” said Koh Min-jeong, a spokeswoman for Mr. Moon.
During a break from their talks, Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon ambled off for a walk through the woods of Panmunjom, with cameras broadcasting their outing live around the world.
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.
第二天早上，韩国一家报纸在头版和最后一页上刊登了文在寅与金正恩手挽手跨过边境的照片。韩国研究中心(Korea Research Center)的一项调查显示，会谈结束后，77%的韩国人认为金正恩“值得信任”。在那之前，他被认为是该地区最危险的领导人。
“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 completely abandon the nuclear weapons considered so dear to his regime’s survival and his legitimacy as leader of North Korea.
“It’s right to be skeptical,” said Ra Jong-yil, a political scientist and former deputy director of the South’s National Intelligence Service. “How can the leader of a nation change so quickly? We tend to see what we want to see in North Korea.”
“持怀疑态度是对的，”曾任韩国国家情报院(National Intelligence Service)副院长的政治学专家罗钟一(Ra Jong-yil)说。“一个国家的领导人怎么可能变得这么快？在朝鲜问题上，我们往往只会看到自己想看到的东西。”
Some expect that in his meeting with Mr. Trump, Mr. Kim will most likely commit to denuclearizing his country completely in order to weaken the rationale for sanctions, but insist on a “phased” denuclearization. They say Mr. Kim probably fears that whatever agreement he strikes with Mr. Trump may not survive, given Washington’s unpredictable politics.
“The whole world is being duped” by Mr. Kim, said Shim Jin-sup, a retired psychological warfare officer of the South Korean military and expert on North Korean propaganda.
金正恩“欺骗了全世界”，韩国军方退休心理战官员，曾任对朝宣传专家的沈仁习（ Shim Jin-sup，音）说。